The new selection show format sapped the life out of the best parts of Selection Sunday

“Now, the number eight seed…”

Whatever else Greg Gumbel said after that on last year’s Selection Sunday, the people packed inside Welsh-Ryan Arena didn’t hear it. The Northwestern Wildcats had made history — or ended history, depending on how you look at it — earning their first trip to the NCAA tournament ever. And as soon as the purple “N” logo made an appearance in the bracket, Evanston went wild. The on-site cameras captured Northwestern players exploding out of their chairs, hugging, smiling, crying. Just moments later, when it was announced that the Wildcats would face No. 9 seed Vanderbilt, the nerd jokes came flying in and prognosticators and fans alike began breaking down the matchup.

It was everything Selection Sunday should be. A team seeing its name in a bracket is one of the most meaningful and memorable moments of the game whether it’s a one seed or a 16 seed, a bubble team or an automatic bid receiver, a blue blood or a March Madness debutant.

In the case of the Wildcats, the Selection Show worked perfectly last year. The players and crowd buzzed every time an 8/9, 7/10 or 6/11 pairing hit the screen, and nerves built every time another region went by without that purple N popping up. Though the team was, by all measurements and projections, safely in the tournament, when you’ve missed 78 straight tournaments, well, you can never be too sure. The show smartly revealed the West region last, keeping Northwestern faithful on the edge of their seats before finally putting the Wildcats in and bringing pandemonium nearly eight decades in the making to Evanston.

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But that was last year. This year, the format was completely changed. For years the bracket had been revealed in full, region-by-region. Two years ago, CBS started interspersing regional reveals with analysis, but that received major backlash, and the bracket even leaked early due to the lengthy show time. This year, the network tried something new in the hope of avoiding that line of criticism. Instead of revealing the bracket, the show started by “revealing” the automatic bid qualifiers — the teams that won their respective conference tournaments. That added up to roughly half of the field (32 out of 68 teams). The remaining 36 at-large bids came next, and they came in alphabetical order.

There were a ton of issues with this, but we’ll start at the top with the most obvious one: Why the automatic bid list? If people complained about having their time wasted before, why did TBS take time running through a long list of teams that were guaranteed berths? If you paid attention to conference championships, you already knew these teams were in, and even if you didn’t pay attention over the past two weeks, the “revealing” of conference champions revealed nothing. It was just reporting what had already happened. There was no suspense listing teams already in the tournament.

Then came the alphabetical listing. As Gumbel and Ernie Johnson wound through the alphabet unveiling teams one-by-one, it was increasingly hard to keep track of what each selection meant to teams further down in the alphabet. It was a counting game. How many teams had been revealed? How many spots were left? And the alphabetical nature of things meant that teams on the wrong side of the bubble had just moments of excitement followed by what will surely long hours of anguish. Take, for example, Oklahoma State. The Cowboys beat Oklahoma last week and took two of three meetings against the Sooners this year. But when Gumbel and Johnson got to ‘O,’ they announced Ohio State and Oklahoma… and then went to Providence.

The Selection Show is meant to pique interest in the tournament — to reveal the entire bracket first and foremost, making every single 8/9, 7/10 or 6/11 meaningful for the bubble contenders. Instead, it was an unceremonious and awkward game of ABC’s. The point isn’t to argue that Oklahoma State should have made it. The point is that after the Providence logo popped up onto screens, I’d imagine lots of television sets in Stillwater turned off — the Cowboys faithful could get their bracket later in the night. Same with disappointed fans in South Bend and in Louisville and a handful of other places. TBS turned away significant segments of its viewing audience just minutes into the show. That’s the exact opposite of what Selection Sunday should be.

Social media agreed:

Eventually, TBS did get to the bracket, and it got through it quickly. This was the best thing that the network could have done. But it was doubly frustrating that the show moved through the bracket quickly — which it had struggled with in previous years — because it had already wasted time with its pointless automatic qualifiers list and at-large “reveal.” The at-large reveal was labored. Some teams’ bubbles burst just minutes in, while teams safely into March Madness gained nothing by hearing their name called. Why waste time telling people a top-five team is in the tournament? Everyone knew it would happen. What people thirst for is the drama of an intriguing matchup and potential fun second round games. Instead, they awkwardly waited for that reveal, already knowing they were in. “Did you know Duke made the tournament?” is pointless. Of course it did. “I think Duke could have a tough time with Rhode Island in the second round” is one of the best parts of the selection show. At least, it should be.

In turn, teams’ reactions to making it — normally one of the best parts of the day — were noticeably subdued. The best reaction of the day was Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley celebrating not his own team, but his brother Bobby’s team, Arizona State, getting in. If that doesn’t mean something is wrong, nothing does.

The Selection Show shouldn’t be this difficult. Hosts should reveal the bracket and then provide context and analysis. It shouldn’t drag on, like it did in past years, and it shouldn’t feature long stretches of lists that reveal no bracket information, like it did this year. The delirious joy that usually dots the nation on Selection Sundays was nowhere to be found this year. It was truly disappointing that a show that should feature unparalleled enthusiasm and drama turned to a boring alphabetical grind.

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