COVID-19 forced the NCAA to rework its longstanding schedule for the men’s basketball tournament, and while recognizing that this damn pandemic shouldn’t be credited with anything positive, well, turning the Sweet 16 into a weekend affair and moving the Elite Eight to prime time on Monday and Tuesday was … genius.
And it's something the NCAA ought to make permanent.
Sweet 16 games have consistently been played on Thursdays since 1953. It wasn’t called the Sweet 16 then, of course. With only 22 teams in the entire tournament, it didn’t merit a nickname (the term didn’t come into vogue until the late-1980s).
Even as the event expanded in size and popularity, the basic setup continued: four Sweet 16 games played on Thursday and Friday each, then two Elite Eight games on Saturday and Sunday. The winners head to the Final Four the following weekend.
Then came COVID, knocking out the entire 2020 tournament and leaving the NCAA staff desperate to make 2021 work.
Tradition now took a back seat to practicality. Protocols, testing, venue availability, player rest and health and about a million other factors became priorities.
The biggest issue was the First Four — the four “play-in” games which previously were held on Tuesday and Wednesday (two each night) immediately after Selection Sunday. The NCAA couldn't test the players in time for that.
“Thursday was the earliest we could start with testing and protocols,” NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said in January.
Thursday, however, is when the first round traditionally begins — 16 games that run from noon to midnight (eastern) and cause an untold number of sick days at work. There are 16 more on Friday. Then the Round of 32 on Saturday and Sunday.
So everything got pushed back one day — the 2021 first round was on Friday and Saturday and the second round was Sunday and Monday.
The NCAA decided to further shift the middle weekend. If nothing else, no one wanted a team to have to play four times in eight days (Thursday play-in, Saturday first round, Monday second round, Thursday Sweet 16).
Besides, what was the rush?
The result was a gift for basketball fans. Rather than jam four games into two television windows on Thursday and Friday evening (or late afternoon out West), the NCAA scheduled all games to run consecutively on Saturday and Sunday — basically 2 p.m. to midnight eastern.
Suddenly, there was no Madness missed. It was a day-long smorgasbord (followed by another day-long smorgasbord) rather than a lot of remote-control work.
Even better, each game — and team and player — got its own chance to shine. There was no featured contest. An upstart with a small fan base such as Oral Roberts got the same national attention as a Michigan or a UCLA.
If you reach this stage, you get the spotlight.
“CBS, being great partners, worked together with us to imagine a Sweet 16 game round with no [overlapping] games,” Gavitt said. “All of those games, four on Saturday and four on Sunday will have their own exclusive windows, which will just make for an incredible viewing experience.”
Gavitt’s prediction was correct.
The idea of playing the Sweet 16 on Saturday and Sunday (and even starting the first round on the weekend) actually has been around and even presented within NCAA headquarters for at least two decades. There was just no push for action.
We will see what ratings this produces — although comparisons would be difficult. Not only is sports viewership down almost across the board, but the time slots, days and rounds are different. These games also lack big-name programs such as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and so on.
Going forward, the NCAA should return the First Four to its original Tuesday/Wednesday and then start the first round on its traditional Thursday at noon. The Final Four and title game should still be a Saturday/Monday affair.
However, the middle weekend should go with the 2021 precedent. It offers more exposure, actually cuts down on missed class time for players (we know, but still) and gives teams that make the Sweet 16 a little more breathing room to bask in the accomplishment and churn up the publicity.
About the only downside is that each year one Sweet 16 site is held in the football stadium that will host the following year’s Final Four (it’s a sort of dry run). Trying to get a huge crowd on a Tuesday night, rather than a Sunday afternoon, will be difficult.
A radical solution to that?
Follow the lead of 2021 — where the entire event has been staged in Indiana — and hold the Sweet 16/Elite Eight in one city every year.
You only need two venues (the NBA’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse handled the Sweet 16). As much of a carnival as the Final Four is, having 12 games played across four days in one city would be even better for the basketball-obsessed.
This would become a huge event in its own right. Maybe Indy becomes the annual Sweet 16 site. Or maybe it rotates to markets that lack a domed football stadium and thus can't host a Final Four (New York, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, Philadelphia). Meanwhile, the first two rounds and the Final Four would continue to bounce around America as is.
If that’s too much change all at once, at least stick with the second weekend schedule.
We might as well get something good out of COVID.
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