Find something that works, and stick with it.

That’s a fine strategy for sportswriters, teachers, salesmen and CEOs. Sure, we all need to adapt with the times, but change for the sake of change: A) Doesn’t always improve your product; and B) Often is a tried-and-true highway to self-sabotage.

After living long enough to see arguably the superlative first round in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I have but one request — nay, demand — of everybody involved in staging the event.

Please, please, PLEASE, for the love of all that is decent and holy, don’t mess with it.

Sports fans and human beings of a certain age get my drift. I know we old folks are sometimes guilty of lamenting that everything used to be better than it is now.

You’ve heard the grumbling, and some of it has a point. We cry that pop music was superior before Auto-Tune. MTV was preferable when it played videos and ESPN when it aired highlights. Presidential elections were more productive when our candidates weren’t completely disconnected from reality. And so on.

It isn’t a giant leap to extrapolate those conclusions into the sporting realm. Football fiddled with its rules to favor offense and handed its steering wheel to an overmatched, overreaching commissioner. Baseball turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing drugs and watered down its playoffs. Pro basketball became overly dependent upon the 3-point shot and lost all interest in fundamentals. Boxing married the mob.

NASCAR transformed all its cars to look alike and all its drivers to act alike. Golf put all its eggs in one player’s basket and hasn’t yet recovered from his physical breakdown. Hockey renegotiated its television contract until 90 percent of the Stanley Cup playoffs ended up on, I dunno, Reelz Channel and TV Guide Network?

But the basketball tournament — ah, March Madness — found a niche and wisely, with few exceptions, the lucky stiffs in charge elected not to screw with it. The phenomenon that Larry and Magic, Patrick and Michael, Jimmy V and Phi Slama Jama invented hasn’t been sullied by needless tinkering and overthinking.

Yes, some of it is dumb luck. I remember carefully removing the glossy bracket from the centerfold of Sports Illustrated as a 9-year-old, and here’s a radical idea: I filled in the names of the winners after the games were played. Never would I have imagined that completing the ladder in advance — as a form of low-stakes, bragging-rights gambling — would become ubiquitous as Independence Day fireworks and Halloween candy.

Who predicted this? Who in their right mind figured that men across America would schedule, ahem, elective surgery on a Wednesday in mid-March to ensure a four-day weekend of hoops uninterruptus? Who imagined their wives researching the mascots of Maryland and South Dakota State and trying to decide if a jackrabbit could overpower a turtle?

There have been speed bumps. The “first four” games are an unnecessary affectation. For a year or two, it was difficult to follow the sequencing of early-round games on CBS’s satellite networks. Once we get our bearings on that first Thursday afternoon, however, the product in 2016 is almost indistinguishable from what many of us watched in 1986 and 1996.

Every year, some do-gooder from the fairness police, given a forum in the 24-hour punditry between Sunday and Wednesday nights, advocates for a tournament that includes every team in Division I.

No, no, a thousand times, no. The quality and balance of the 64 teams that tip off the true “madness” Thursday at noon are letter-perfect.

If anything, what filters through our flat screens today is better than it ever was in decades past. The upper echelon programs have become one-and-done, professional-development factories, while the mid-majors are the ones who flaunt 22- and 23-year-old grown men wearing their dark jerseys.

Chances of those first-round upsets we know, love and crave have increased tenfold. It’s a perfect fit for a historical epoch in which so many of us are consumers of Haterade, eager to see the 1 percent, the blue bloods, and every other pejorative we use to describe the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world go down.

We often reserve some of that disdain for the NCAA. They represent “The Man” in every form and fashion. They stumbled into this phenomenon from which we cannot divorce our attention each mud season.

Credit where credit is due and thanks where thanks is appropriate, though. They are wise enough not to get fat, dumb and happy. They have been shrewd enough not to feed and water this monster that is perfectly developed and self-sustaining.

As sports fans who have been so disregarded and disenfranchised by other organizations over the years, the pleasure is all ours.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @oaksie72 and like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.


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