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A More Perfect Tournament: John Gasaway

Of course March Madness is great. "The best spectacle in sport." "Three weeks without equal." Blah blah blah. Not content to leave well enough alone, we want to know if it can be better. We're in search of a more perfect tournament. So, we asked a few friends of the magazine if they had any ideas for improving the NCAAs. Here's what John Gasaway, a writer for Basketball Prospectus and co-author (with Ken Pomeroy) of 2008-2009 College Basketball Prospectus, thinks we should do.

I find the madness of March to be pretty dang sublime as is, but one thing it could definitely use less of is major-conference mediocrities.

Every year without fail, the sixth-, seventh-, or even eighth-best teams from leagues like the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, or Big East get into the tournament. And, just as certainly, every year those same teams go home almost immediately.

True, there is one outstanding exception to this rule: North Carolina in 2000. The Tar Heels that year made the tournament by the slimmest of margins, having gone 18-13 during the regular season. That team went all the way to the Final Four before bowing out in the national semifinals. Still, how many George Masons have we missed out on in the years since, as those bids went instead to marginal mezzanine dwellers in the "power" conferences?

Fortunately, there's a method close at hand for distinguishing truly unpromising major-conference teams from the merely unlucky. Teams that are outscored during their major-conference regular seasons tend to flame out in the NCAA tournament. Regardless of seed, no such team has made the Sweet 16 the past three years. (That includes Miami and Oklahoma this year.) Let these teams eat NIT cake. Give their NCAA spots instead to upwardly mobile mid-majors.

One more thing: Once that mid-major is in the field, please don't pair them up with another mid-major. This year's first-round mid-major fratricide included Davidson vs. Gonzaga, South Alabama vs. Butler, Kent State vs. UNLV, and Drake vs. Western Kentucky. Here's hoping next year's selection committee doesn't likewise red-line mid-majors into densely populated bracket ghettoes.

At its best, the tournament is a dialectic, one that requires not only strutting favorites but also plucky upstarts. Trust me, the strutting favorites will always be there at the end. Due provision should also be made for their opposite number. 

--John Gasaway

Matthew Yglesias: Make March Madness even madder.

Will Blythe: Nationalize the office pool!