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Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola

Mad men

Sports | The NCAA plans big changes to a hugely successful tournament

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

Of all the years to consider tweaking the NCAA men's basketball tournament, this year's field offered one of the most compelling arguments against it. In the first two days of March Madness, fans witnessed the most upsets from double-digit seeds (eight) since the tournament adopted its 64-team format in 1985. Two of those Cinderella stories went on to win second-round games also. And by the time the Final Four rolled around, a pair of five seeds remained in the hunt.

Such parity adds to the unpredictability of the event, splashing red ink on best-laid bracket predictions in office pools nationwide. Who could have picked Northern Iowa to top No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round? Who could have guessed that 10th-seeded Saint Mary's would dance into the Sweet 16?

And yet, before this foray into titillating madness had even been allowed to run its course, the NCAA was considering a plan of expansion to 96 teams. Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, told reporters that the association was discussing seriously the 96-team model: "I think the premise here is to create a model that most likely provides stability over time."

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As the thinking goes, the increased parity between major and minor conferences affords the opportunity for more competitive games and increased television revenue. Never mind that a No. 16 seed has never made it out of the first round. Is there any reason to believe that the fate of seeds 17 through 24 would be different?

Proponents of the expansion argue that it might help lessen turnover in the head coaching ranks, since 32 more teams could claim successful seasons. Of course, among those teams not making the tournament field, the pressure to ax the head man would only increase.

Net gains

As long ago as the 12th century, American Indians formed teams with hundreds of players and used sticks to hurl a small deerskin ball toward goals on either side of a mile-long field. Today, the field is much shorter, the teams much smaller, the ball made of rubber, but the uniquely American game of lacrosse remains strong-in fact, grows stronger.

Its increasing popularity over the past decade places it among the fastest-growing sports in the country. In the NCAA, 20 women's teams and 12 men's teams debuted this year alone. The last decade has seen hundreds of new college teams formed, pushing participation to about 16,000 student athletes, half the number who participate in college basketball. And this swell of lacrosse interest is not playing out in obscurity: Attendance at the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championship tops that of any collegiate playoff final, even outdrawing the Final Four of men's basketball.

Once relegated to the Northeast, the game now is catching on throughout the Midwest and beyond. The relatively low cost to initiate a lacrosse program helps explain the collegiate growth. But the explosion of adult leagues and youth programs testifies to a more visceral attraction.

Lacrosse combines the field spacing discipline and back-and-forth rhythm of soccer with the quick passing and ball control of basketball and the behind-the-net dynamic of hockey. Lacrosse is also a high-scoring game, with goal tallies routinely reaching double digits.

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