NCAA Tournament: Why Big Dance is unique and should remain so

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

There is nothing in college sports equal to the NCAA Tournament. It is such a popular entertainment product it fuels Bracket mania, long before March Madness begins. Even people who rarely watch college basketball during the regular season relish filling out a Big Dance bracket.

It is not unfair to say the NCAA does few things well. But the college sports umbrella organization does March Madness extremely well. So well, in fact, it is the cash cow that fuels the NCAA.

The NCAA Tournament, even with the funky play-in games is perfect. The broadcast teams and production quality are superb. The only real weakness is the same one that plagues all of college basketball; inconsistent officiating. Admittedly the game is a hard one to officiate. For the most part, over the course of a season bad calls even out. But to fans of a losing team whose NCAA Tournament game included a known, ‘poor’ official, a bad call can decide a game.

What drives much of March Madness frenzy is upsets. The prospect, to use European football terms, of a minnow taking down a whale, makes for great suspense. This year’s 15-seed, St. Peter’s win over 2-seed Kentucky was such a moment. Many are calling it the biggest Big Dance upset ever. That distinction probably belongs to 2018, when the 16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers beat the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers.

UMBC followed that upset with a loss to Kansas State in the second round. The 2018 tournament was also remarkable because of 11-seed Loyola-Chicago making it to the Final Four.

One oddity is the favorite, at least in recent years, does not frequently win. The overall No. 1 seed has won just three NCAA Tournaments going back to 2004, (data from CBS Sports). According to, a 1-seed has won the National Championship game 47% of the time since the tournament field was expanded to 68 teams in 1985. In all games going back to 1985, 1-seeds have won 79.8% of their tournament games.

The general perception is the NCAA Tournament is fair for both high and low seeds. The elite programs have considerable success but lower seeds pull off enough upsets to keep the Big Dance, Cinderella dream alive year after year.

There is always debate about the accuracy of the seeding. The bottom line is ranking the teams is a challenge in a sport that is ripe for many upsets. Basketball is so different from football. The biggest and strongest do not always overpower teams with size disadvantages.

The nature of the game itself makes it predictable, with a ball constantly being thrown around, dribbled and shot with unpredictable degrees of success. Add in how difficult the game is to officiate and the randomness leads to outcomes in single games that widely deviate from any norm. In an elimination format, the best should rise to the top, and the tournament winner is rarely disputed as the nation’s best team.

Next. 2022-23 will be a very different SEC. dark

One mistake often made is comparing a potential 16-team CFB Playoff format to the Big Dance. An expanded CFB Playoff is a sound idea, but trying to model it after the NCAA Basketball Tournament is not. The two sports differ too much for comparison.