March Madness is a television show.
CBS and Turner Sports are the producers of the hit series, now in its 75th season. How can “America’s most watched network,” Turner Sports, and especially the tournament selection committee ensure that this anniversary season is full of more than just “one shining moment?”
Manipulate the seeding.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee ruthlessly inflicted its ratings-obsessed wrath upon the Midwest region, or better known as the region of death.
Kentucky (26-10) was not only placed in the region of death, the Wildcats were handed an eight seed. The selection committee did not care that the Wildcats were the number one team in the nation just five months ago, nor did the committee take into account the Wildcats’ strength of schedule (number two in the nation.)
UK was not a true eight seed when the tournament schedule was announced and is certainly not playing like one now. The little number next to their name on the bracket has resulted in a Sweet 16 appearance. This comes as little surprise to the selection committee members, who cohesively play the role of “Gamemaker” in the NCAA Tournament a la Hunger Games.
Like the main event in the Hunger Games, the NCAA Tournament features fan favorites, upsets, emotion and heroism, and everyone is just trying to stay alive.
Seneca Crane was the “Gamemaker” in the first Hunger Games with an emphasis on the word “was.” In the film, Crane had the hapless job of ensuring the competition between children forced to fight to the death was “quality tv.” Crane was executed for not orchestrating the television program and selecting the storyline of the most popular event in the country the way Crane’s boss demanded.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee may have felt the pressure from their boss as well. The tournament is made for television and after last year’s Final Four became the highest-rated Final Four since 2005, CBS and Turner Sports naturally want more.
The Midwest region did not just happen to feature the most significant matchup possibilities because of luck. Kentucky as an eight seed was and is ludicrous and the only team that deserves to be more upset than the Wildcats about the selection is the one-seed Wichita State University.
Wichita State was 35-0 entering the third-round game against the Wildcats, but because of the Shockers’ presence in the Missouri Valley Conference, WSU rarely received national television appearances.
Despite the perfect record this season and Final Four appearance last year, viewers were not going to find a third-round matchup between Wichita State and a mediocre team endearing. The selection committee’s solution was to feature the potential matchup of Kentucky, led by five freshmen and two sophomores with no tournament experience against Wichita State, led by upper classmen with Final Four experience.
Wichita State versus Kentucky was the best game in the tournament as of Thursday night, which is exactly what the selection committee wanted. If the Shockers won, the storyline became “the magical perfect season continues,” and if they lost (which they did by two points) the storyline “down goes number one, the young Wildcats are for real!” would (and did) become the new story of the tournament.
The Wildcats were not the only team from the state of Kentucky or from the Southeastern Conference to receive an unnerving, head-scratching seed. The American Athletic Conference Tournament Champion and defending National Champion Louisville Cardinals (31-5) were handed the four seed in the Midwest region. The Tennessee Volunteers (24-12) were not even invited to the second round of the tournament. As one of the “First Four,” Tennessee had to defeat Iowa in a play-in game just to get the chance to battle the sixth-seed Massachusetts.
If Kentucky had received the five seed and won its first-round matchup, Wichita State would not have had to face a team that was playing its best basketball of the season and had just come within one point of defeating the top team in the nation.
If Louisville and Duke had traded places and both the Wildcats and the Blue Devils had won their second-round game, college basketball fans would have still been treated to an epic matchup. A Kentucky vs. Duke third-round game would have appealed to an even larger crowd than the Wichita State/Kentucky matchup did, as memories of the “Laettner Shot” have not been forgotten (especially by Wildcat fans.) This matchup would have caused a television ratings explosion and would have been much more justified for Louisville, Wichita State, Kentucky and as it turns out, Duke (who lost to Mercer in the second round.)
The highly-anticipated matchup between the Shockers and Kentucky could have still potentially happened in the Sweet 16, after Wichita had taken care of an actual eight-seed team. The even higher-anticipated matchup between Louisville and Kentucky could have happened in the Elite Eight. Kentucky, Louisville and Tennessee each proved the inaccuracy of the Midwest region seeding en route to the Sweet 16.
Regardless of the clear focus on television ratings in the selection process, Kentucky is going to play against Louisville in the Sweet 16. Blue and red blood, sweat and tears will be shed on Friday night as the state of Kentucky’s fiercest rivalry book adds a new chapter.
The Wildcats defeated the Cardinals in their only prior matchup this season on Dec. 28, but as every team in this tournament has proved, prior games do not matter.
What matters is that teams receive a deserving seed. Unfortunately, the tournament has become incredibly and increasingly commercialized to the point that selling captivation to an audience is more important to the selection committee than fairness. Kentucky passed the tests of an undeserving seed and a matchup against an undefeated team. Now a familiar obstacle has emerged in Kentucky’s path.
The selection system is in place (for now.) Kentucky is an eight seed and Louisville is a four seed.
Fair or not, one incredibly talented team will have only reached the Sweet 16 and return to Kentucky after Friday night.
It will be the most popular episode of March Madness’ 75th season so far.