Here's how great the NCAA men's basketball tournament is - even the NCAA can't screw it up.
For three wonderful weeks every year, the NCAA looks as if it knows what it's doing. And, in this case alone, it actually might. The tournament committee stumbled around a little bit when expanding to 68 equal-but-not-really teams a few years ago. Other than that, the tournament is a model of efficiency and fairness.
The move to a geographical pod system for the first weekend's glut of games was brilliant, both because it saves money and because it bolsters attendance by making it more practical to follow one's team. After that, the tournament rolls on with its own momentum and, man, does it ever roll. Saturday's regional finals doubleheader - Wisconsin-Arizona and Kentucky-Notre Dame - did the highest overnight ratings for the Elite Eight round in 10 years.
If you could cut open the NCAA to get at the truth - thus releasing a large amount of hot air in the process - you'd find that the teams in this year's Final Four aren't just representative, but make up what the NCAA would probably consider a perfect group.
To start, there are three No. 1 seeds among the Final Four (and, yes, we all know about the fate of the fourth), and that serves as validation for the seeding process in particular and the entire selection process in general.
Then there is a surprise in the mix, if Michigan State's succeeding in March can even be a shock. The Spartans, as a No. 7 seed, weren't supposed to get this far, however, but they aren't so much of a surprise that the Final Four would devolve into a carnival that spins around one unlikely underdog. A little spice goes a long way, and Michigan State's inclusion fits the anything-can-happen script the NCAA likes to peddle this time of year.
As a bonus, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, depending on your point of view, two of the teams are college basketball royalty from the gang of eight - Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan, Connecticut, Florida, and Syracuse - that has put at least one team into the championship game for all but two of the last 29 years. As a further bonus, Kentucky is attempting to complete the first perfect college season in 39 years. Maybe nobody loves Goliath, as Wilt Chamberlain always said, but people will show up to see whether he gets a rock in the eye.
If the NCAA drew it up - do they? - the tournament couldn't have come out much better this year. Maybe the drama in the Sweet 16 round would have been heightened if Notre Dame had to play Kansas instead of Wichita State, or if Villanova had hung around to try its luck against Louisville, but those absences didn't keep many from their television screens.
Finding the poor decisions in the selection and seeding process isn't easy. Five of the Elite Eight teams were from among the top seven seeds in the tournament. Eleven of the Sweet 16 were from among the top 20 seeds.
For the most part, form held, and even where it did not, the NCAA still managed to achieve some level of vindication for criticism it received on Selection Sunday for favoring the power conferences. Four of the five teams in the Sweet 16 that were from outside the top 20 seeds (including Michigan State) were from one of the six power conferences that placed a total of 35 teams in the tournament. Even UCLA, the poster child for the selection committee's "eye test" that appeared to see only the big boys - at the expense of the Temples of the world - advanced to the Sweet 16 as further vindication (albeit requiring a goaltended three-point attempt at the end of its first game against Southern Methodist to do so).
Arkansas was probably overrated, with a No. 5 seed, as was Georgetown with a No. 4, but the winners and losers weren't individual teams as much as the conferences they represented. An amazing five of the six Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the tournament got to the Sweet 16, and so did three of the four Pac-12 teams. On the other hand, the Big Ten and Big 12 each placed seven teams in the tournament and saw only two each make it to the second weekend. The Southeastern Conference had five teams in the tournament, but only Kentucky advanced from the first weekend.
The Big Ten, with two teams in the Final Four, gets a pass on its survival rate, but it was a very quiet tournament for the feisty new Big East, which put six teams in the field in just the second season of its new alignment. Only Xavier - by dint of a path that provided an 11-seed and a 14-seed as roadblocks - got to the Sweet 16. Villanova was obviously the biggest disappointment, and the league might have to work to repair its national reputation next season.
Picking a dream championship game, the NCAA would probably prefer Duke taking its shot against Kentucky. A final possession showdown between Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns? Sure, whatever. It no longer matters, because the NCAA has already had a great tournament and is playing with house money now.
Not to mention everyone else's, too.