Blogging the Lesser Tournaments IV: The Slipper Still Fits the Tar Heels

As it turned out, the game of the NIT quarterfinals was the game that was already over by the time I posted my last look at the lesser tournaments. Texas Tech missed game-winning shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime, and Ole Miss…didn’t, driving the length of the floor in five seconds en route to a Murphy Holloway layup and-one. That’s the most trouble the Rebels have had for the tournament, against something of a Cinderella run by the 5 seed. All the other quarterfinals were in single digits but didn’t provide the same kind of last-second drama. No A-10 teams may remain in the NCAA Tournament, but two tourney snubs are going to Madison Square Garden. Rhode Island held off a late run for a 5-point victory over Virginia Tech, while Dayton knocked off another 1 seed, Illinois, by seven. No 1 seeds will make the NIT final four.

But the George Mason story of the NIT has to be North Carolina. Look at how disappointing the Tar Heels’ season has been! Forget the NCAA Tournament, they’re on the NIT bubble! The only reason they’re a 4 seed in the NIT is because people want them to host a game and get the biggest fan base to fill the seats! And yet the Tar Heels have been playing like the team everyone thought they would be, the defending national champions who have now taken out three teams with better NCAA bubble credentials than them. First it was William and Mary, then Mississippi State, and now UAB has found out that the Bulldogs were not the only team they should fear in their bracket. Now UNC gets the NCAA Tournament experience and one more team that missed out on the NCAAs in Rhode Island. For the Rams, Dayton, and Ole Miss, proving the NCAA committee wrong is the motivation in MSG. For North Carolina, it’s proving everyone in March wrong, and everyone in November right.

What may have been a dream matchup will happen in the CBI’s best-of-three Championship Series: Virginia Commonwealth vs. Saint Louis. Both teams won their semifinal games by double digits, although VCU didn’t shake Boston University until late. VCU was the 5 seed in the CAA tournament, but only two of their losses came outside of conference, and they beat a George Mason team that had a very short trip to the CIT, and forced overtime against eventual tourney champion Old Dominion. Saint Louis became a spoiler for A-10 at-large contenders late in the season, briefly becoming a borderline at-large contender themselves. Both teams now get a chance at the spotlight, however small, and bragging rights heading into next season.

In the CollegeInsider tournament, the semis were split over two days, with Missouri State and Creighton playing an all-Valley matchup on Wednesday. Missouri State won after going on a 10-0 run once Creighton tied the game with over six minutes to play. The following day, Pacific knocked off an Appalachian State team that had made it all the way to the SoCon finals in hostile territory, and will now play their fourth straight road game. The perennial Big West powers were the 2 seed in the conference tournament but were upended by Long Beach State, and in some sense are the North Carolina of the CIT, winning despite constant disrespect.

So if you’re not interested in the Women’s Elite Eight and you’ll miss March Madness over the course of the next week, fret not. If you know where to look, there’s basketball every day of the next week.

Lesser Tournament Championship Week:
CBI Game 1: Saint Louis @ VCU, Monday 7 ET, HDNet
NIT Semifinal: Dayton v. Mississippi, Tuesday 7 ET, ESPN2
CIT Final: Pacific @ Missouri State, Tuesday 8 ET, FCS
NIT Semifinal: Rhode Island v. North Carolina, Tuesday 9 ET (after Dayton-Mississippi), ESPN2
CBI Game 2: VCU @ Saint Louis, Wednesday 8 ET, HDNet
NIT Final: DAY/MISS winner v. URI/UNC winner, Thursday 7 ET, ESPN
CBI Game 3 (if necessary): VCU @ Saint Louis, Friday 8 ET, HDNet

Blogging the Lesser Tournaments III: The CBI’s Revenge

The NIT quarterfinals are already underway, kicking off with Texas Tech playing Ole Miss. Tech would probably be the story of the NIT if they made the Final Four. In some ways they’re a little like Northern Iowa, but different. Tech already proved they were good by beating a fringe at-large contender, Seton Hall, in the first round, and becoming the beneficiaries of Arizona State falling to Jacksonville. Still, Jacksonville was determined to prove they weren’t a fluke, leading by 11 in the first half and not relinquishing the lead until a quarter of the way through the second. Now Texas Tech faces another at-large contender in Ole Miss, who proved their supremacy over Memphis. (Yes, I know that game is already over.)

Here’s something that can’t be explained by popularity alone: North Carolina is still alive. I questioned their 4 seed as a result of a desire to have them host a game, but they upended a legit at-large contender in Mississippi State. (Not a good round if you wanted vindication for the state of Mississippi.) The finish was rather exciting, with Larry Drew II hitting a buzzer-beating layup over one of the country’s leading shot-blockers in Jarvis Varnado. The Tar Heels will face UAB, who had no problems taking care of North Carolina’s in-state rivals NC State.

North Carolina is still alive; Connecticut is not. They made a game of it – leading before Dorenzo Hudson made a 17-footer with 14 seconds remaining, then seeing Kemba Walker blocked, a made free throw, and unable to hit the buzzer-beater – but Virginia Tech is still playing with a chip on their shoulder from missing the NCAAs. Rhode Island had more trouble than they anticipated against 6-seed Nevada, who had already beaten fringe at-large candidate Wichita State. The Rams led by 10, but Nevada came roaring back to cut the lead to one with five seconds left, only to throw the ball away for their 16th turnover. Illinois breezed by Kent State, while Dayton shockingly had little trouble with Cincinnati, admittedly teams with similar at-large profiles. Now Illinois and Dayton – and V-Tech and Rhode Island – play tomorrow for a spot in New York and to prove the committee had them wrong and the other team right.

Also playing tomorrow will be all four semifinals of the CBI and CIT. After a slow start in the first round, the CBI nearly became as exciting as the NCAAs, as all but one quarterfinal went to overtime. Virginia Commonwealth handled Charleston, beating both teams I expected to make its quarterfinal, and may now be the favorite with how everyone else struggled. But Saint Louis is still alive, despite needing two overtimes to knock off Green Bay. Down two late in regulation, the Billikens had a potential game-winning layup waved off because the player that put it up grabbed the net with the ball still going through, but Kwamain Mitchell stole the ensuing inbounds and tossed it to Willie Reed (no relation… I think) for the game-tying layup, with Green Bay unable to hit a buzzer-beater. The teams scored only three points apiece in the first extra session and nothing at all in the final minute, and Green Bay kept it close late in the second overtime, but not close enough. Who wants to see a VCU-Saint Louis final?

Boston University led by as many as 11 over Morehead State, but the Eagles were able to come back and tie it with 28 seconds left, and the Terriers were unable to convert on three opportunities to break the tie in the final 10, but led for all of OT, though prevailed in the final tally by only two. They play Virginia Commonwealth. Princeton will play Saint Louis as part of a run as impressive as their Ivy-mates Cornell but not as easy. IUPUI actually led by two with 29 seconds left in regulation but John Ashworth missed two free throws that could have all but iced the game, and Ian Hummer grabbed the rebound and sprinted down the court for the game-tying layup. The first overtime went similarly to that in the other game in that half of the bracket, while the second was all Princeton, as IUPUI could only manage two free throws and no field goals.

It was the CIT’s turn to lack excitement. Only Pacific had any trouble at all in the “western bracket” final against Northern Colorado. The Bears got within three with six seconds left but Demetrece Young made one of two to ice the victory. Pacific will play Appalachian State, winner of the only other game in single digits. The Missouri Valley representatives had no trouble at all with Fairfield and Louisiana Tech. (Apparently the CIT doesn’t have a problem with matching teams in the same conference in the semifinals, even when the other two teams are on opposite sides of that conference.)

My pick for CIT final: Appalachian State def. Missouri State. But it’s gonna be close.

Blogging the Lesser Tournaments II: The Madness Before the Madness

March Madness started well before Thursday. While the NCAA Tournament took its leisurely time with a play-in game before the real fun started yesterday, the NIT, CBI, and CIT have been blitzing through their first rounds; the last game of the CIT’s first round was yesterday, between Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, while the NIT and CBI crammed their respective first rounds into two days. And over the past few days, all three tournaments have been proving they can be just as full of excitement as the Big Dance.

In the NIT, UConn barely survived Jim Calhoun’s old team, Northeastern, thanks in part to lock-down defense in the final few seconds. NC State had to wait to see if Richard Howell’s layup with 8 seconds left beat the shot clock buzzer. North Carolina had to come back and play lock-down defense to beat William and Mary, and Jacksonville pulled off a 24-foot buzzer beater to perform the equivalent of a 16 seed knocking off a 1. In the CBI, Virginia Commonwealth had to hold off a furious comeback by George Washington, and in the CIT, Fairfield had to come back from 27 down – possibly the largest deficit come back from in Division I postseason history – to force overtime and eventually beat George Mason, overshadowing a not-so-successful comeback by Western Carolina as they fell to Marshall.

And that was just Tuesday.

I mentioned on that day that the CIT was more an opportunity to play more games than a serious tournament, but it has started to develop a reputation for housing as much March Madness as the Big Dance, only taken to record-breaking extremes. Last year, Bradley hit what may have been the longest buzzer-beater in Division I postseason history to knock off Oakland in the second round. Worth noting that Oakland and last year’s champion, Old Dominion, are both in the Big Dance this year. Sadly, Day 2 of the CIT did not produce as much excitement, with no game being closer than eight points, and Louisiana Tech similarly put away Southern Miss by nine.

The other two tournaments, however, did not disappoint. Following up on the Jacksonville upset, the Pac-10 went down to 0-2 in postseason play entering the NCAAs, before Washington squeaked by Marquette, as Boston University upended Oregon State by 18 points. Duquesne was unceremoniously dumped from the tournament by Princeton, but Green Bay took a while to pull away from Akron, while the NIT produced more buzzer-beaters. Nevada squeaked out a four-point win over Wichita State, Wesley Witherspoon hit a buzzer-beating layup to put Memphis over St. John’s, and Kent State came from behind to knock off Tulsa. The NIT seriously produces just as much excitement as the Big Dance, because its teams are still good teams. In a way, the CBI may have fallen the furthest behind in the excitement department – though remember how I identified only six teams from conferences with RPI rank of #17 or below? All four of the teams that faced teams from top-16 conferences won.

The NIT actually slows down to a more leisurely pace from this point on, spreading the second round over several days, and taking Sunday off, perhaps to make room on ESPN’s schedule and avoid overly competing with the NCAA Tournament – indeed, half the games aren’t played until Monday. That’s when Virginia Tech squares off against UConn, in a game that must look right scary to the Huskies after the way they escaped Northeastern, while Rhode Island takes on Nevada. Mississippi State’s argument is still alive heading into a Saturday showdown with North Carolina, as is Illinois heading into a contest with Kent State. Jacksonville will attempt to make lightning strike twice against Texas Tech, and Cincinnati-Dayton, Memphis-Mississippi, and NC State-UAB round out the NIT slate.

Monday is also when both the CBI and CIT will cram in all their quarterfinals. Saint Louis is the only A-10 team left in the CBI quarters and they face the Green Bay team that squeaked out that tight buzzer-beater, in what may be the most interesting game of the third-tier slate. The next-most interesting game might be Charleston vs. Virginia Commonwealth, two schools not really that far apart. Elsewhere, Princeton takes on IUPUI, and Morehead State takes on Boston University. In the CIT, Appalachian State travels to Marshall in a battle of two 23-win teams that also aren’t that far apart, while Fairfield takes on Creighton, Louisiana Tech faces Missouri State, and the “western bracket” ends when Pacific takes on Northern Colorado.

My picks for CIT quarters: Appalachian State def. Marshall, Fairfield def. Creighton, Missouri State def. Louisiana Tech, Northern Colorado def. Pacific.

Blogging the Lesser Tournaments I: Pick Your Tourney

We don’t need to expand the NCAA Tournament, and we sure as hell shouldn’t. The college basketball regular season is plenty meaningful, and even at the end of the bubble, the NCAA Tournament only selects the elite teams. (Okay, maybe not so much this year. But don’t believe the hype about the NCAA being forced to select bad teams.)

What we need is a change in perception. We need to realize that the 128 teams selected to go to any one of four postseason tournaments are ALL at least above average, even good when you consider that double 128 would be 256 and Division I has almost a hundred more than that. Connecticut and North Carolina are below their usual high standard this year, but they are still good if not great teams, just not fantastic enough to make the NCAAs. Relative to the rest of Division I, even the third-tier tournaments select better teams than the mediocre squads that populate the NBA and NHL postseasons. We need to realize that if it’s a “reward for a great season” Villanova coach Jay Wright wants, the NIT, CBI, and CIT more than fit the bill just as much as the NCAAs do.

In college football, we know this. We recognize the importance of the bowls as a reward for a good season, even if they’re as overloaded with teams as the NBA and NHL postseasons, and even when the teams involved are FAR removed from the national title picture. You got selected to the Texas Bowl? Congratulations, you had a good season and now you get a nice vacation in a warm climate and a game on national television against a good opponent with a chance to end your season on a high note and win a trophy. You got selected to the Holiday Bowl? Ditto for you, plus you’re better than the vast majority of teams in college football; quit griping about not making the BCS. You got selected to the Capitol One Bowl? Ditto for you AND as many people will watch your game as a weak BCS game.

Any playoff proposal worth its salt will keep the bowls as consolation prizes for teams that don’t make the playoff. So will the bowls be treated like the afterthought the NIT is now – as a jeering way to refer to teams that don’t make the playoff, even if they happen to be #17 in a 16-team system? Or will they continue to be seen as rewards for good seasons?

Over the next few weeks I will treat the lesser tournaments as what they are: the non-BCS bowls of college basketball. As a celebration for 64 good seasons that didn’t put their teams within the elite. As a way to have four winners at the end of the season, not one. As a national spotlight (well, it should be) for teams that don’t get a lot of attention during the season because of all the focus on the NCAAs, allowing the NCAAs not to be the end-all and be-all of national attention. And as a trip to basketball arenas across America to see more basketball being played than the NCAAs allow. The titles don’t actually mean anything, but then, neither do the bowls. It’s a shot at bragging rights, and when it gets right down to it, which would a bubble team rather have: a double-digit seed in the NCAAs and only once in a blue moon advancing beyond the Sweet 16 (and rarely making it that far), or being favored to win the entire NIT while hosting home games in the process?

I will follow each tournament round-by-round as they approach their respective conclusions, keeping an eye on all the developing storylines and shining light on the tournaments behind the Tournament. I won’t be able to watch any tournaments other than the NIT, because I don’t have HDNet to watch the CBI or FCS to watch the CIT, but I will still attempt to follow them from afar. Follow the Blogging the Lesser Tournaments category to join my journey to show why a trip to the lesser tournaments is nothing to be ashamed of.

One good thing that resulted from the starting of the CBI and CIT was that it gave each of the three tournaments its own identity, instead of the NIT just being the consolation tournament for NCAA losers. The NIT is dominated by the teams on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble, serving as their attempt to prove they deserved to make the Big Dance. In fact, it really is the “little dance”. Not only does it have all the tradition – a longer tradition than the NCAAs, in fact – and the best non-NCAA teams, but ever since regular season champions that didn’t make the NCAAs started getting auto bids to the NIT, it’s actually gotten its own internal structure in the first round, much like the NCAAs.

In the NCAAs, the 1, 2, and 3 seeds – protected seeds that include the national championship favorites – take on teams that are only there because they have to be. They generally win those games going away; once in a blue moon a 15 or 14 will upset a 2 or 3. The 4 and 5 seeds take on the teams that probably deserved a little more respect – strong champions of weak conferences, borderline at-large teams – and it’s those 4-13 and 5-12 matchups that produce the most exciting upsets. The 6/11, 7/10, and 8/9 games pit at-large against at-large, and while it’s very rare that any of these teams make the Final Four, especially with the 1, 2, or 3 seed waiting in the second round, they certainly make for as appealing a game as you’re likely to find in the first round.

Bubble teams dominate the NIT field. I recognize every one of the top three seeds from the bubble conversation, plus the 4 seed Seton Hall and the 5 seed William and Mary (who I have to imagine is only being forced to go on the road to North Carolina so the big-name Tar Heels get a home game). Similarly, with the exception of Northwestern, the 7 and 8 seeds consist mostly of the teams that got the auto bids. So the 1 seeds get pretty easy trips to the second round, complete with home field advantage (except for Illinois, who apparently will have to go on the road to Stony Brook), while the 2 seeds should have a fairly easy ride if they aren’t caught wallowing in their own inability to make the Big Dance. The 3/6 and 4/5 games, though, should be a LOT of fun. The 3 and 4 seeds will have home court advantage, but they will be playing other good teams that could very easily get feisty on a good day.

The NIT is especially bowl-like because it is the only one of the lesser tournaments to play on a neutral site. In the NCAAs, teams play to win and move on to another semi-randomly chosen site, where the stakes slowly get bigger and bigger, but the Final Four and a number of the regional sites are generally football stadiums. But in the NIT, if you can make it to the semifinals, suddenly you’re playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. You’re arguably playing on more hallowed ground than most of the NCAA tournament sites. Once you reach this point, you’re practically getting the true-to-life NCAA tournament experience.

For bubble teams, this is their chance to shine and prove the NCAA committee wrong, and while the cases of teams left out this year are weaker than normal, there are still some teams with plenty of motivation. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the upper right section of the draw, where Virginia Tech and Rhode Island are the top two seeds. V-Tech coach Seth Greenberg ripped into the selection committee on ESPN’s Bracketology show, and they have a desire to prove they are better than their non-conference schedule, just as Illinois was better than their RPI and Arizona State was better than their conference. Rhode Island wants to prove not only that they deserved to make the NCAAs, but to make the top line of the NIT – but they may have gotten the toughest draw of the two seeds in Northwestern. And then there’s Mississippi State, who has everyone else arguing on their behalf after almost knocking off Kentucky in the SEC final.

My picks for second round: Illinois def. Tulsa, Illinois State def. Cincinnati, Arizona State def. Texas Tech, Mississippi def. Memphis, Virginia Tech def. Connecticut, Rhode Island def. Wichita State, Mississippi State def. William and Mary, South Florida def. UAB. My picks for MSG: Arizona State def. Illinois, Rhode Island def. Mississippi State, Rhode Island def. Arizona State.

The College Basketball Invitational doesn’t think of itself as third-tier. In its own mind, it sees itself as a competitor with the NIT. The group that started it was partly reacting to the NCAA taking over the NIT and gaining something of a monopoly over the college basketball postseason. But the NIT still has the history and tradition on its side, and the CBI rarely gets more than a couple of defectors to party with them. (It doesn’t help, according to what I’ve read, that the CBI and CIT are pay-to-play and teams would rather play for free in the NIT.)

At this point, you start running out of big-conference teams (although is the dropoff in the BCS conferences really that big after the NIT?), so while the NIT, despite a more balanced composition than the NCAAs (thanks to the auto-bid rule), is mostly dominated by teams from BCS conferences, the third-tier tournaments are filled up with teams from underrepresented conferences – namely, mid-majors. Defending champion Oregon State is the only team from a BCS conference in the CBI field – and in case you hadn’t noticed, the Pac-10 wasn’t exactly BCS quality this season. Saint Louis, who became a borderline NCAA candidate by becoming an A-10 spoiler late in the season, is probably the most interesting team in the field, joining fellow late-season A-10 spoiler Duquesne, who may have only played their way into the CBI field with their late-season heroics. Colorado State is the representative of the highest-RPI conference – even though no Mountain West teams made the NIT field.

On the other hand, while BCS conferences are not well represented, the true mid-majors crowd out the small majors. Saint Louis and Duquesne are joined by George Washington as A-10 represntatives. Indiana State represents the Missouri Valley. Akron holds down the MAC; Virginia Commonwealth the CAA; Green Bay the Horizon. The Eastern Kentucky-Charleston game will feature the only two teams on the left side of the draw from conferences ranked worse than 16th in the RPI, and Charleston comes from the #17 SoCon. The right side is more forgiving to low-majors with Boston U, Morehead State, IUPUI, and Princeton.

The CBI is the least bowl-like of the bunch, but it makes up for its lack of a neutral site final with a final format that neither the NCAA or NIT can boast. The CBI final is a best-of-three series between the two teams remaining, instead of a winner-take-all single game. So while the NIT makes making the semifinal the biggest achievement of the tournament, the CBI places more of its emphasis on the final as the singular, defining event of the tournament. The goal is to reach the final, and then prove you’re better than the other team you face. It makes more sense to talk about halves of the CBI draw than quarters, especially since the CBI doesn’t expressly seed the field like the NIT.

My picks for second round: Saint Louis def. Akron, George Washington def. Charleston, Colorado State def. Boston University, Duquesne def. Hofstra. Saint Louis def. Colorado State 2-0.

The addition of the CBI wasn’t good enough for the people at For them, all it showed was that the NCAAs and NIT didn’t have to be the only two tournaments out there. So last year, they started their own tournament to give more love to the mid-majors out there, and give teams that once were one-and-done in the NCAAs or NIT a chance to win some postseason games, even if in a down year against inferior competition. (Because the newly-formed Great West conference isn’t NCAA-eligible, its conference champion, South Dakota, receives an auto bid to the CIT.) Unlike the CBI, they recognize that they stand behind the NIT in the pecking order, but they do compete with the CBI for teams, and successfully.

In a sense, winning the CIT is like winning the mid-major NIT. I seem to recall them saying they would emphasize teams from conferences that hadn’t put half their teams in the postseason by the time the CIT got their hands on them, but that wasn’t enough for them to pick the Pac-10’s fifth team. Instead, Creighton and Missouri State are the representatives of the highest-RPI conference in the field. But there’s only one fewer team from a conference ranked #16 or higher in the RPI than the CBI, with Western Carolina, South Dakota, Harvard, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee State, Northern Colorado, and Pacific the only representatives from lesser conferences. Unlike the CBI, the CIT wasn’t willing to pick a team as far down the pecking order as the America East.

The CIT clearly doesn’t take itself as seriously as the NIT or CBI. Not only do they emphasize mid-majors, they expressly forbid teams with losing records, while the NIT or CBI would take them if they had a good enough profile otherwise. Perhaps recognizing the fact they’re more a bowl-like “reward for a good season” than a tournament with any meaning, the CIT doesn’t have a real “bracket” per se, but instead determines new matchups after each round, making each game an event in its own right. Thus the western teams play each other (Portland-Northern Colorado, Pacific-Loyola Marymount) instead of playing for any real “seeding”. In a sense, it’s more a way of adding more games to its teams’ schedules than a real tournament. But emphasizing mid-majors does cost the CIT in the attention department. While the CBI can at least point to teams people paying attention only to the NCAAs might at least have vaguely heard of during the year, like Saint Louis (though really, Oregon State? The team my Seattle Redhawks blew out in Corvallis? South Dakota may be the only lower RPI team selected to any postseason tournament), the CIT has to promote its tournament based on what their teams have done in the past, like George Mason and Creighton. Personally, Appalachian State may be the team that interests me most in this field.

My picks: George Mason def. Fairfield, Marshall def. Western Carolina, South Dakota def. Creighton, Appalachian State def. Harvard, Missouri State def. Middle Tenn. St., Northern Colorado def. Portland, Pacific def. Loyola Marymount, Louisiana Tech def. Southern Miss.

A LONG-overdue sports graphics roundup.

When was the last time we had a sports graphics roundup, July? We’re very overdue for one, especially considering some major developments in the world of sports graphics in the interim…

I had to go outside this country, but I did eventually find a video that had Versus’ IndyCar graphics:I have to say, while I didn’t know how Versus would do racing, I’m rather impressed with the graphic they did come up with. The placement of elements is a little haphazard, and the lap count and current flag sort of stick out like a sore thumb, but everything looks rather natural and nothing seems forced. It also flows well with Versus’ other graphics.

Versus also introduced a new score box for college football, which lost the element of putting the two teams on opposite ends “VS.” one another. Switching from a rectangle to a parallelogram theme makes it look a little more professional, but I didn’t like the score to the left of the teams’ abbreviations on the old CBS box (more on that later) and it looks even worse here.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter, because it looks like Versus is in the middle of a graphics package change that will FINALLY unify its graphics packages – and it looks good enough maybe they don’t need NBC’s help. It started with coverage of Mountain West basketball, and although it looked a LOT spiffier than any previous Versus graphics package, they were off to a bad start by putting the teams and scores at the extreme opposite ends of the strip, which I’ve criticized before.The graphic Versus broke out for the NHL after the Olympics, however, works VERY well with the team logos flanking their abbreviations atop the team colors. At the very least, it’s a big improvement over Versus’ old graphics. Now if only they could change the rest of their graphics to match…If Comcast is planning on bringing Comcast SportsNet closer to its other sports properties, perhaps they should adopt a variant of the Versus graphic for it. Have you seen the abortion that is Comcast SportsNet’s new basketball score bug? Just look at this bulky number! TNT’s NBA graphic looks like a work of genius!

As promised, we finally get a look at TBS’ baseball graphics, and I get the impression they were designed more for the playoffs than the regular season. See the top line, with the triangle indicating the side of the inning, the inning itself, and the game number? During the regular season, “TOP” or “BOTTOM” is spelled out across that entire space. TBS knows people only watch their coverage for the playoffs. Then again, Fox also gives the inning more space than it needs, and I suspect this graphic was designed to maximize solidarity with Fox…

Kuo 2009 NLCS Game1 from Erised on Vimeo.

…except BOTH of the pioneers of the two-line box seem to be abandoning it. FSN went back to a banner for basketball this year, and that’s not the only change, which tells me similar changes are coming to other sports. While the basic elements of the player info are the same, same font and basic design, it looks undeniably different, and seems to take a cue from the philosophy of ESPN’s MNF two-line box, because all of it comes out of the banner itself. It also looks not unlike what I thought ESPN’s graphics for non-NFL sports were going to look like, complete with area on the right side telling you exactly what kind of basketball broadcast you’re watching.

ESPN also introduced a new graphic for MNF this year, keeping the basic philosophy of last year’s banner – stats appear in at most two lines with the name of the person displayed crammed into one side – but going back to a single line for the banner itself, with a small area above it for displaying stats. When I first saw it, I almost didn’t recognize it as an ESPN graphic or even an ESPN broadcast – there was no BottomLine, the fonts didn’t look right, and the colors certainly didn’t look right. ESPN’s color is red, not gold!

But there was evidence that this was, in fact, THE new graphic for all sports – one of the fonts is the same as that being used on SportsCenter, and the on-field down-and-distance graphic was basically lifted whole-cloth with less color when college football season started. It was confirmed when the same banner showed up for college football, first in the South Florida-Connecticut game, and then in all bowls. I’m guessing after seeing how bad last year’s MNF banner translated to the NBA, ESPN hastily decided to change course. For college football, ESPN basically removed the “MNF” wordmark (which incidentially, changed to an “NFL” wordmark without surrounding logo for the Pro Bowl) and stretched the space for the team names to fill the space. To further create space for the team names, ESPN shrunk the font size for them, making the whole graphic look bulky, which is probably my biggest quibble. ESPN also replaced the colored line on the side with a little arrow indicating possession.

Might this be why the score graphic for the SEC Network – one of the most widely distributed syndication packages in recent memory – has a rather sloppily slapped-on SEC logo on a black parallelogram on top of the ESPN logo? Might it just be a stopgap for the introduction of this new graphic and its more professional application? Regardless, I can’t wait to see how less standard ESPN logos (ESPNU, ESPN RT) look on this new banner – the ESPN logo is a little crammed as is.

You know what all this means: yet ANOTHER year of a different graphic for the NBA Finals! But ESPN surprised me when I first saw the NBA version of this graphic earlier today. I had anticipated ESPN would stick an “NBA” logo on there, similar to the “MNF” wordmark (and the final ABC Sports NBA graphic), which it could then remove to create a college basketball graphic. Not only did they not do that, they tried to have it both ways: moving to the new graphic but keeping its two-line character with a permanent statline below, not above, the main line. (I prefer the football approach.) I have a feeling the college basketball graphic is going to be very different, and I wouldn’t rule out yet ANOTHER change before next year’s Finals.

That changes a lot of my speculation as to what this graphic will look like for other sports, since they could have quite a bit of leeway. I still imagine the baseball graphic will look a lot like the football graphic, given how much stuff needs to be crammed in there. But how this will work for racing is anyone’s guess, and they may take more after basketball – especially since my old mock-up of a two-line NASCAR banner may be out of date for another reason. I don’t know if this is new, but TNT is now showing the current leader constantly on its graphic. (I can’t show you because NASCAR seems very protective about videos showing their broadcast partner’s full graphic and it doesn’t appear on the genericed-out version. Incidentally, ESPN moving most of the Chase races from ABC to ESPN makes “ESPN is killing sports on ABC” rumors a lot more plausible. Same goes for making the SEC Tournament the only college basketball on ABC, which is weird because the SEC is the only conference ABC doesn’t show football for, and in fact this may be the only part of “the SEC on ESPN” that’s on ABC.)

On a related note, ESPN’s move to add timeout indicators to its college sports graphics seems to be catching on. ESPN, CBS, and NBC all added them to their NFL graphics a few weeks into the season, though at first, it was hard to tell between taken and not-taken timeouts on ESPN’s graphic. (Incidentially, I don’t think timeout indicators are coming to the NBA.) One thing remained constant: just as with ESPN’s college football banner, all the networks couldn’t find a way to make it fit with the rest of the graphic – not even CBS. After clinging to an alternating-sides box for the NFL even after its own SEC telecasts moved to a banner, CBS suddenly took a great leap forward with a banner so tricked-out it might presage more changes to all the other sports, probably because it had the Super bowl this year. Only the score display as it comes in to and out of commercial changed to fit the new banner; all other graphics remained unchanged, which is sad, because the inconsistency between having just the name come out of the logo and the entire graphic has always bugged me. But as much as the design of the timeout indicators (showing up not only on CBS’ SEC coverage, but its college basketball games as well) meshed with the design of the rest of the banner and as much as they tried to make it fit, they still stuck out like a sore thumb.

NFL Network had an easier time of it, but that big tab it stuck the timeout indicators on still looks awkward, even with the tab filling in the remaining space.

NBC came out the best of the bunch purely by chance. Imagine my surprise when NBC used its Super Bowl XLIII graphics at the lowly Hall of Fame Game after sticking with the old graphics at the Pro Bowl. I have no idea why NBC had those little things hanging underneath each team’s spot on the banner, as it was only used for things like penalties and who took the last timeout that didn’t require them to be on the screen all the time, but it gave them the perfect spot to stash timeout indicators when it came to that.

Fox is the only NFL TV partner that hasn’t added timeout indicators to its graphics yet, and as much as I hated them aesthetically when ESPN introduced them on college football I actually missed them practically watching the NFC playoffs. But presumably, with Fox having Super Bowl XLV, they’ll take a CBS-style great leap forward with both Fox and FSN moving to a new strip complete with timeout indicators.

There. Unless CBS introduces an NFL-style graphic during the NCAA tournament we’re set ’til baseball season, and hopefully my next round-up won’t be so massive.

Why Jay Wright is wildly out of touch with the real issues surrounding tournament expansion.

Did I hear Jay Wright give completely backwards priorities in defending an expanded NCAA tournament yesterday on PTI?

“There are so many good teams that are not getting into this tournament,” Wright said. “In college football, close to 50% of the teams go to bowl games, and they’re rewarded for a great season. In college basketball, only about 18% of the teams go to the NCAA tournament.” And that’s a GOOD THING. The NCAA tournament selects only the cream of the crop. Adding more teams will not introduce teams with a snowball’s chance in hell of actually winning the whole thing. It will just devalue the regular season more. We don’t need college basketball becoming more like bowl games in football where there are more bowl games than anyone could possibly care about – or like the playoffs in the NBA or NHL.

“As great as the NIT is, and everything else, if you don’t go to the NCAA tournament you’re perceived as having a poor season,” Wright added. “You just get on the bubble and you don’t get in and your season is looked at as a failure, your team looks at it as a failure, your alumni do, when really, you had a great season, you just got caught on the bubble.” Then is the problem with the tournament, or with the perception? As I said last week, perhaps we should change the perception before we change the tournament? That’s it, I’m blogging the NIT, CBI, and CIT starting next week. They’re the equivalent of the lesser bowls and I’m going to treat them as such.

Part of the problem is that Wright doesn’t understand the appeal of the tournament. Adding more teams that, in his mind, “deserve” to be in may improve the quality of play, but no one gives a rat’s ass about the quality of play. We care about Cinderella, and they will be less impressive in a 96-team field. Most people don’t watch March Madness because they care about college basketball, they watch because they care about the tournament, and ruining the appeal of the tournament ruins the one reason a lot of people care about college basketball at all. It may be good for kids’ egos (and coaches’ jobs) but it isn’t good for the tournament and it certainly isn’t good for college basketball as a whole. Perhaps a larger issue is that Villanova plays in the FCS for football, so Wright isn’t very intimately familiar with the debates surrounding a playoff in college football. He doesn’t realize that a lot of people already don’t consider the basketball regular season “exciting”, they consider it irrelevant to the tournament, he’s not very familiar with the great college football regular season and how it makes basketball pale in comparison, and he’s not all that familiar with the insight that has become very apparent in that debate: less really is more.

Why expanding the NCAA tournament field would be an even bigger mistake than anyone realizes.

This is an intervention. As a college football guy, I cannot stand idly by while the NCAA ruins not only perhaps the best tournament in all of sports, but secretly, one of the most meaningful, and in the process prove that college football playoff critics are right when they claim that any playoff would inevitably expand.

I have to make a confession. Before my schedule and workload went all to hell, I was planning on taking time this year to do my own “bracketology” exercise, just for one year, in part to serve as a demonstration that the college basketball regular season, supposedly incredibly devalued, is in fact more meaningful than ANY other major American sport other than college football. The NFL regular season is tense and exciting all the way to the end as you watch and see who can lock up playoff berths, and everyone thinks college basketball only begins in March, yet each college basketball regular season game is about as meaningful as an NFL game. The math proves it (even if I may have slightly undercounted the number of games). Right now, the NCAA tournament is for elite teams only. But people don’t realize this because a) they only look at the raw number of 65 teams and b) they only pay attention to the big-name, BCS conference teams that are in the field every year, and note that the bubble teamsĀ  – who get 11 and 12 seeds – never make the Final Four, which rarely sees a team seeded lower than 9. I would have attempted to show that there is as much at stake in any college basketball game as in the NFL, and even for BCS teams, more than in baseball, the NBA, or the NHL. You just need the right perspective on it.

I had too much to do (and too little in the way of a decent place to work) to engage in my own bracketology exercise, and I’m starting to regret it, because I may never get another chance to do so with a 65-team field, and if the NCAA expands to 96, they may make the meaningless regular season a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Expanding the tournament to 96 teams would not be a complete disaster, at least at first glance. Even if the NCAA were to double the tournament field the importance of each game would be more than in baseball, the NBA, or the NHL, and they would still select a slightly smaller percentage of the teams to the postseason than the NFL. But the proposed 96-team field would already make it less meaningful than not only the NFL, but bowls in college football, something else college basketball is better at right now. And at a time when college basketball has a reputation for a meaningless regular season, the NCAA can’t afford to dilute the regular season any more.

Two things make the NCAA tournament great, and therefore wildly popular. The most obvious is Cinderella, which is why the first round or two is often the most enjoyable. The other, less obvious, thing is that seeds are meaningful, not only for where you will play the first four rounds but who you’ll play, because even the crappiest of conferences gets an auto bid. A 4 or 5 seed has to deal with a potential upset bid; a 1 seed has never lost to a 16, so they can just coast. Keep in mind that a 5 seed is still one of the top 20 teams in the country, good enough to be ranked in the polls, and good enough to make it to the Final Four with some regularity. These are good, prominent teams that still have to keep fighting for protection in regional and subregional site selection, as well as for seeding that could mean the difference between a run to the Elite Eight or Final Four, or a first-round shocker.

Expanding the tournament to 96 teams would hurt both of these so much it could kill the tournament as we know it. Yes, a 96-team field opens the possibility of byes… to the top 8 seeds. You go from being in the top 16 being meaningful with significant differences between them (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, one of the best teams in the SWAC, is 194th out of 347 in the RPI) to being in the top 32 being meaningful with lesser differences between them. There aren’t going to be any more auto bids, so the current no-name underdogs from no-name conferences will go from being seeded 12-16 to 20-24, and go from playing teams seeded 1-5 to teams seeded 9-13 – teams currently on the bubble or even out of the tournament! In the second round (what is now the first) they’d play teams seeded 4-8, but only if they’d already survived one game. 1 and 2 seeds will not be as safe as before, but neither will they be playing Cinderellas as pure – teams that don’t need auto bids to play in the NIT now. (Wait… aren’t those mostly BCS conference teams?) What’s more, because every one of the top 8 seeds would be playing an NIT- or bubble- caliber team, or alternately a weak-conference team good enough to beat an NIT- or bubble- caliber team, the consequences for moving a seed line become a lot less. And while a bubble team like George Mason making the Final Four is rare, it’s still possible – but it’s rare enough I don’t think it would ever happen in an expanded field, rendering all the bubble teams – and thus the bubble discussion – completely irrelevant.

Goliath isn’t as Goliath-like, David isn’t as David-like, and the regular season becomes even less meaningful – and there’s less reason to watch the tournament, or even follow college basketball, at all. So much for the notion that more games = more money.

One of the signs that college basketball’s regular season has become diluted (in the public eye) and the tournament too much the focus of the sport is the parade of coaches coming out in favor of an expanded field, saying that all kids should have the experience of going to the NCAA tournament. Being in the top 18% of teams in the country is every student-athlete’s birthright. Of course, a lot of these coaches are assessed on the standard of “NCAA Tournament or bust” – they are expected to make the tournament, and if they can’t, they lose their jobs, so they’re interested in making it easier for them to keep their jobs than the shockingly high standard they’re held to now. So let’s expand the field so being in the top 96 (really the top 80 or so) is magically just as good as being in the top 64 (really 45 or so) is now. So why isn’t it good enough now?

College basketball doesn’t have a regular season problem, a too-small-tournament problem, or even a too-large-tournament problem. It has a perception problem. We’re better off fixing that before we make changes that could kill the sport. It’s time people realized that making the NIT is far from a disaster – it means you’ve achieved more than members of the baseball, NBA, or NHL postseasons. Turning it from a chance to win a tournament to a chance to play one extra game than the best teams isn’t the best way to go about that, and neither is making the NCAA tournament less of an elite club.