UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – ‘Maddening’ Madness sets bar for future CFP

The maddening Madness of 2023 is now history.  

Finally! say all whose brackets were busted before the tournament reached the Elite Eight.

By the way, how many of the teams you picked made the Final Four? Thought so.

Did you pick Florida Atlantic, San Diego State or Miami to win it all?  UConn?

The Huskies indeed played like champions—winning six games by an average margin of 20 points. Amazing for a team that tied for fourth place in its conference in the regular season, but typical for this year’s tournament.

This version of March Madness was the most unpredictable, and among the most exciting, NCAA men’s basketball national championship tournament ever, though disappointing and unsatisfying if you’re into favorites.

It included:

Two winners from the First Four (Pitt and Fairleigh Dickinson, which wouldn’t have made the tournament if Northeast Conference champion Merrimack had completed its transition period to Division I) upsetting their first-round opponents in the round  of 64!

Cinderellas vying for the glass slipper—FDU, which lost the battle of acronyms to those Owls from FAU (Florida Atlantic University), and the Ivy Leaguers from Princeton, who surprised two states, Arizona and Missouri!

All four top seeds—and all four number twos—ousted by the end of the Sweet Sixteen!

Games decided in the last minute! 

A little guy, Kansas State’s 5-foot-8 Markquis Nowell, stealing the show on the court.

And, of course, a fourth seed winning it all. 

Altogether, the three weeks of tournament games were filled with tension and excitement. In my view, a classic.

It made me think, once again, how much better the major college football national championship playoff will be when it involves more teams. 

Thank goodness it’s only a year away, when it will follow the 2024 season.

Granted, there won’t be any Fairleigh Dickinsons or Florida Atlantics in the field. And probably not a UConn. But there will be 12 teams, not four. (By then, maybe Deion’s Buffs?)

There will be at least one longshot. (In major college football, almost any Tier One school that made this year’s March Madness would be Cinderella material if it made the 12-team football playoffs field.)

Looking at the season past, Tulane would have been the FDU-FAU equivalent as the ranked champion of the American Athletic Conference. 

The rest of the field likely would have included playoff regulars Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State, one-time powerhouses Michigan, Penn State, Southern Cal, Florida State and Tennessee; a couple relative newcomers (in terms of playoff prominence) in TCU and Utah; and possibly Washington.

No Notre Dame or Clemson; no Texas or Oklahoma.

That’s not quite the unpredictable field of March Madness, but it’s better than starting with semifinals.

The College Football Playoff, or CFP as it’s known, will never have the panache of March Madness. But it could have its own brand of excitement.

The field will be comprised of the six highest-ranked conference champions plus the six highest-ranked non-conference winners. Thus, the conference championship games and, for that matter, the last couple weeks of the regular season, could draw attention comparable to the first two rounds of the basketball tournament.

“The regular season has become more important,” said CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock after agreement was reached on the 12-team format last December.

He, of course, views it commercially.

“The game of football is certainly very healthy,” he said then. “Look at the viewership. Look at the number of people in the stands. I think this 12-team tournament will only enhance that.”

Lest you shrug that even this expanded CFP, at only 12 teams, won’t compare with March Madness, no matter what Hancock says, consider the history of the basketball playoff.

When it began in 1939, it had only eight teams. The Oregon Ducks beat Ohio State 46-33 for the title, as chronicled in Terry Frei’s terrific account of that first tournament—March 1939 – Before The Madness.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the NCAA tournament grew to 16 teams, and it didn’t expand to 32 until 1975. Ten years later, Madness doubled in size. One play-in game was added in 2001, and the First Four began 10 years later.

So, while a 12-team CFP may seem modest or inadequate to some, realize that March Madness has evolved into what it is now. 

There’s nothing to say the CFP can’t grow in the future and approach the madness of Madness.

Maybe it’ll even have a UConn-like champion one day.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net