Yes, I'm going to defend the BCS. Yes, I'm going to do it sincerely and with a straight face. And yes, I'm going to tell you college football's system of crowing a champion is better than March Madness, the second best post-season tournament on the planet (the NHL playoffs are better, but I'm biased). Don't get me wrong- March Madness is fun, but it's becoming less and less fun, and doing more and more to expose college basketball's regular season as almost meaningless.
Quick, what is the point of the playoffs? Of a playoff tournament? It's to crown a champion, right? And crowning a champion means finding the best TEAM from that particular season, right? So if you've watched college basketball all season, do you really believe these are anywhere close to the four best team of this season? Of course not. Whomever wins next Monday night will simply be the team who played the best the past three weeks.
Last I checked, the idea of the Final Four is supposed to pit the four BEST teams in college basketball. Well this Saturday the four "best" teams are apparently four schools that were seeded 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 11th (what idiot would mistakenly call VCU a 12 seed? Moron, that guy) in their respective regions. This is the BEST college basketball has to offer? Of course it's not. Anyone who watched college basketball throughout the regular season knows the best teams were Ohio State and Kansas, and then Duke, Pitt, North Carolina, San Diego State, Notre Dame, and Florida in some order. Yet none of those teams remain. Heck, half those teams didn't even make it out of the first weekend! Upsets are great and are what make March Madness so much fun. We LOVE the Cinderella/Underdog story, and teams like Jim Valvano's NC State team of 1983, Villanova in 1985, Michigan with the Fab Five as freshman, George Mason a few years ago and Butler last year are great stories. We all seem to love that David Goliath matchup of the top seed vs an underdog, but what happens when all the Goliaths are gone and we're left with nothing but David's?
When we're left with this many lower seeds, it stops being fun, and starts being proof of mediocrity and parity. This is not to slam the players and coaches that make up the four remaining teams. Jim Calhoun has won a national title, and had a group that was highly ranked for part of this season. John Calipari's been to the Final Four with three different schools, and this is probably his best chance to finally win one. Butler coach Brad Stevens might be the best coach in the country (86-14 in 3 seasons, and has made the NCAA second round, the national final and at least a final four appearance in those three seasons. And he's 34 years old. Don't EVER say he was 33. Ever. An offense punishable by death. Tarred and feathered at the very least. Or forced to watch this weekend's Final Four) and it could be argued his team really WAS this good all along, it just took them until February to figure out how to play well without their best player (who was Gordon Heyward, the 9th pick in last year's draft). VCU? No real explanation other than Shaka Smart is obviously a good coach, and will have a chance to coach a much bigger program next year if he chooses.
But the fact we have these four teams as the Final Four exposes the flaws of college basketball's system. For one thing, college hoops is as watered down and mediocre as its ever been. The big names are one-and-done, meaning there really, truly are no elite teams anymore. When 'Nova or the Fab Five made runs to the national final in the 80's and 90's they did so through a college basketball world chalk full of juniors and seniors and future NBA lottery picks. The "underdogs" who get there now are doing so through teams with either no future NBA talent, or guys who are so young that even as lottery picks they'll be lucky to crack an NBA rotation next season.
That, and the NCAA is trying to kill March Madness and make the regular season almost irrelevant. Honestly, fora once basketball die-hard like myself, what incentive is there to watch college basketball regular season when apparently all that matters is the last few weeks of the regular season and the conference tourneys leading up to the Big Dance? Especially when now 68 teams make the field, and college coaches are pushing (and will likely eventually get) even more. Nobody gives a crap about "the First Four" because there's about 10 interchangable mediocre teams who could fill those spots, and as VCU has proven, all it takes is one of them to get hot and they could make a run. But that doesn't mean the NCAA is right for expanding the tournament, it just means there's less of a point to follow along all season when there's apparently no elite teams, and anybody can win.
And the dark little secret not enough people seem to be talking about is that once the field is down to 64 teams on that third Thursday of March, the first two days are great. But it gets progressively less interesting with every round, and sure we all love to see some opening round upsets (and by opening round I don't mean the "First Four"), in the end we still want to see the best teams with maybe ONE underdog, but not four.
Which brings us to the BCS...
Actually, before we get to the admittedly flawed BCS, one caveat: I'm a sports capitalist in the truest sense. I am anti-salary cap, anti-revenue sharing, anti-big college football playoff. I'm a small-hall kind of guy for Major League Baseball and any other sport (I also believe alleged and admitted steroid users should be allowed in too. It was a part of the game for the past 20 years. There's no way to figure out who used and who didn't. Journeyman reliever Juan Rincon and slap-hitting fourth outfielder Alex Sanchez are admitted steriod users. They're not all big, burly roided-up home run hitters. Without question a lot of the pitchers McGwire and Bonds faced were just as roided up as they were. But of course we're going to let the pitchers in because they don't look the part and weren't demolishing hallowed hitting records. Nobody gives a crap about pitchers career stats, so they get a free pass from the Steroid Police. Ridiculous. Either everybody from the "Steroid Era" gets in or nobody does because there's no way to ever know all the players who used). I think schools in college football like Ohio State, Nebraska, Alabama, Texas and USC SHOULD have an advantage over the Minnesota's and Boise State's of the world. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox SHOULD have advantages in major league baseball that the Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates never will. Big market hockey teams should have an advantage over smaller southern markets who don't care about sport no matter how much Gary Bettman says they do. Heck, they should also have an advantage over small northern market teams like Edmonton, Calgary and Buffalo where the fans love their team and are as passionate as any.
I love college football more than any other sport BECAUSE the biggest and best are rewarded, and those who are not actually have to work to succeed instead of being given the #1 pick in next year's draft or a big, fat check as a revenue sharing from the successful teams (whoops actually that last part sounds a lot like BCS conference money going to the Minnesota's and Iowa State's and Vandy's of the college football world).
Yes the BCS isn't perfect, and no it doesn't ALWAYS get the two best teams in the national final. But it's never, ever, EVER put two unranked teams in, or two teams who didn't start winning consistently until the last quarter of the season. Say what you will about the BCS, but it does a much better job of pitting the two best teams from that season against each other than college basketball ever will. It's not the crapshoot NCAA basketball is and has never given us the mediocre group of four teams some of you will watch this weekend. Yes, the BCS makes the regular season actually matter! You have to win a BCS conference to have any shot at the national title game, and you have to win your conference to play in the most prestigious bowls. If you're not in a BCS conference, you have to be the best of 60 some-odd teams to even have a hope of playing in a BCS bowl, let alone the national title game. And that's the way it should be. Sorry to the non-BCS schools, but it's true.
The only way to improve the BCS system isn't a full blown playoff because that demeans the regular season and waters down the game. A "plus-one" gives just four teams, and only four teams, a chance at glory, and to be one of those four you pretty much have to be perfect, or darn close to get there. That's how it should be. The playoff to determine the best team in your sport shouldn't be a participation ribbon given out to every kid on sports day. WE have 87,000 different bowl games for that. No, the playoff should include only the teams who were the very, very best. I don't mind proposals for 8 or 10 team playoffs (with teams selected much like how the BCS bowls are selected), but as we've seen in the Age of Whiners that we live in, it won't be long before 8 team playoffs become 10, then 12, then 16, then 24...apparently if you whine enough you can get your way. Four teams keeps it simple, and keeps it to the best of the best, and would do the best job of any sport of crowning the real champion of the entire season, not just the last three weeks.
So yeah, the BCS isn't perfect, but at least it rewards the best teams over the ENTIRE season, and not just the end of it. College football loves underdogs and the Cinderella Story just as much as college hoops, but if you want to be David, you have to do it all season, and not just the last three weeks of the year. The BCS might not be perfect, but it helps the college football regular season matter more than any other, which is something you definitely can't say about college basketball.