What Makes a Great NCAA Tournament?

After a year's absence, the NCAA tournament is back in our lives. The Indianapolis-area bubble and reduced fan capacity of every venue means this tournament will look unlike any before it. Yet, every tournament has a bit of a different feel to it — some have more star power than others, some see Cinderellas advance to the Final Four, some are predictable based on seedings while others turn into bracket-busted upset-fests.

The list could go on and on, but some tournaments are better than others. I'm here to take a look at five things that any great NCAA tournament will offer with examples from the last quarter-century or so. While it's too early to know how this tournament will play out, we can say 2021 was a great tournament on April 5 if all these things happened.

1. Upsets (within reason)

Everyone loves the underdog! Until they don't. And in the case of the NCAA tournament, upsets can hurt the end product.

My least favorite tournament of all time was the 2000 edition, where a chalky first round gave way to chaos in the second round and Sweet 16. By the time the Elite Eight was set, only two top-two seeds were left — and they played each other in a de-facto championship game.

2018 was a better tournament overall, but the feeling of inevitability of one team winning is never a great thing in a single-elimination tournament, and it was there with Villanova.

In my opinion, a tournament like 1999 was a great balance between lots of fun upsets and great teams still being there at the end.

2. Signature moments

My favorite tournament of the past 10 years was 2013 — and it had some brilliant moments. There was Florida Gulf Coast's Dunk City Cinderella run, Trey Burke leading an insane comeback against Kansas in the Sweet 16, LaSalle's Southwest Philly Floater, and a barrage of Luke Hancock threes in the Final Four.

2007, on the other hand, had tons of future pros in the biggest games (it was the first year of the one-and-done rule for the NBA), but I don't remember a whole lot of signature games besides Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, and Georgetown beating North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

3. A good Final Four

A tournament can have everything, but if the three games at the end in the biggest stadium aren't very good or are blowouts, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 2011 comes to mind here as probably the worst title game ever amidst Kemba-mania and another Butler trip to the title game.

On the other hand, a great final stage can make a tournament seem greater than it was. In 2015, there was a lot of low scores and slow play in the final days of the 35-second shot clock. But two of the Final Four games (Kentucky/Wisconsin and Wisconsin/Duke) were classic contests played between heavyweight teams.

4. Close games — especially after the second round

This is pretty obvious, but unless it's your team or your bet, no one wants to watch blowouts. And in the first couple rounds, there's usually another game on to switch to — or two or three. The sheer number of games in the first four days of the tournament means several (or more) are likely to be good.

That's not the case during the Sweet 16 or after. If you don't want to watch the game(s) that are on in those stages, you probably watch Netflix, Hulu, or other sports.

5. Compelling matchups later in the tournament

This is somewhat related to No. 1 but isn't the same thing. For example, when UConn made its run to the 2014 championship, it did so as a 7-seed, but played a couple of other blue bloods that had turned surprises in previous rounds (4-seed Michigan State and 8-seed Kentucky). Those were compelling matchups but were also made possible by later-round upsets.

This is also where elements of player and program star power come in. In 2017, the matchup between UCLA and Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox and Kentucky was a huge focus going into the Sweet 16. The game wasn't the most exciting, but the hype of that contest helped the rest of the tournament.

In the coming weeks, let's hope we get all five of these for a tournament that was worth the wait.

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