A 96-Team NCAA Tournament? Give Me a Break

Ian EnosCorrespondent IApril 2, 2010

I am not an avid college basketball fan. Check that; I'm not even much of a college sports fan in general.

Oddly enough, this is how I know expanding the NCAA Tournament is a terrible idea.

It's hard for someone like me, a person immediately turned off by the hypocritical charade that is college athletics, to admit this, but the NCAA Tournament is perfect.

The evolving power structure in the sport has left the opening round largely predictable, yet with just enough intrigue to make me, and millions of others, want to catch every single game I can, regardless of where I may be (thank you March Madness On Demand).

The first round of the tournament is so alluring because of its mix of powerhouse programs, established mid-majors, surprise power conference teams, and relative unknowns. Teams from so many different backgrounds get together and compete in one of the finest spectacles of controlled chaos this nation has to offer.

We even know the pairings by heart. Tell me you don't deliberately pick a 12 over five upset in the first round every single year.

Adding another round will have a two-pronged effect on this stage of the tournament. First, the initial matchups will be far less intriguing. Cinderella stories begin in the first two days of the tournament. People stood up and took note of Northern Iowa after the first round. Cornell over Temple was a big deal.

But if those teams open up with wins over Quinnipiac and Coastal Carolina...yawn. Who cares? Northern Iowa and UNLV is a game I want to watch. Northern Iowa and Stony Brook? Not so much.

Then there's the secondary effect. This is going to wear lower-seeded teams down. Northern Iowa has to go out there and put 200 player minutes into a game against a team with no shot at advancing deep in the tournament. They might still have enough in the tank to beat UNLV, but could they compete with Kansas at that point?

It's possible, but adding another round that only involves the so-so teams that make the field does nothing but enhance the advantages higher seeds already have. It isn't just another game they have to play. The week the Panthers had to prepare for the Jayhawks now becomes a couple of days.

Do not alter a format that can keep me glued to the screen.

Look at the teams that would have basically had to play a solid week of basketball in a 96-team format this season: Northern Iowa, Ohio, Murray St., Old Dominion, St. Mary's, Wake Forest, Cornell, Washington, and Missouri. UNLV, Gonzaga, Texas, Cal, Clemson, Richmond, Oklahoma St., and BYU would not have been subject to the extra round.

Exactly what separates these two groups of schools? What subjects the former to an additional round while the latter sits back and rests?

As if my bracket wasn't hard enough to fill out already.

Seeding is another very serious issue. How will the selection committee seed teams in this new format? What sort of seeding bonus does a power conference team get? Would Butler still have its No. 5 seed, or would a bigger field with more well-known teams be enough of an excuse to drop them a few spots? Could Butler be a No. 9 seed, causing them to play an extra game?

Butler probably would have been safe, but what about Xavier, BYU, and Richmond? It's hard to say because a change this monumental would fundamentally alter the process.

This leads me to the biggest problem I have with the entire idea of expanding the field: Who are we adding to this tournament? As it stands, the NCAA Tournament invites 65 teams to participate. Sixty-five!

This is not like college football, where out of over 100 teams only two are chosen to compete for the championship. Every team controls its own destiny from the outset of the season. People in Boise, Salt Lake City, and Auburn can tell you this is not the case in football.

The argument that you didn't get a fair shot is difficult to make in college basketball because every team in the nation, even after a lackluster season, has an opportunity to play its way into the big dance (just ask Ohio)—with the exception of the uber-traditional Ivy League.

The line between 65 and 66 may be thin, but ultimately, neither team is going to win the national championship.

For me, that's what this boils down to. By adding on to a 65-team tournament, you're not contributing to the level of competition. You're adding fluff. You're adding minutes, which adds commercial breaks. This move will not add a single team capable of winning the tournament.

Then we have to ask ourselves which teams are going to get those newly opened slots. You and I both want to believe Dayton can have a rough year in the Atlantic 10 and still get into the tournament, but we know better. They just beat North Carolina last night, but if only one of the two could get into the tournament, even with their respective résumés this season, the Tar Heels will win that battle 11 times out of 10.

If Dayton were to get into the field, where do you think they would be seeded? I would imagine an 8-8 team from the A-10 would draw a pretty nasty opponent in that opening round. Beating that team just gives them the right to play an even nastier opponent on tired legs.

We could look at the selection process for the NIT to see what sort of teams might get those additional 31 slots, but the NIT is a different animal than the NCAA Tournament.

The NIT is in no way a big draw for a mass audience, so smaller schools with energized student bodies make a lot of sense. Throw the no-names into a tournament with down-on-their-luck power programs and see what happens. It's an interesting experiment—and one that I don't want to see die—that a relatively small number of people partake in.

However, NIT ratings will not cut it in the NCAA Tournament, so there is absolutely no reason to assume that the selection processes will be at all similar.

And if you think this isn't about ratings (also known as money), I'd like to know what it is about.

I don't mean to say that some of those additional 31 teams won't be smaller schools. I figure that the ratio of power conference teams to mid-majors will remain essentially the same. But as the selection committee is getting down to the last few teams, selecting, say, numbers 90-96, where are they going to go?

The power conference teams that end up in this range are clearly not deserving of a chance to play on.

Take a look at a few of these names: Weber St., Illinois St., Coastal Carolina, William & Mary, Jackson St., Northeastern, Quinnipiac, Troy, Jacksonville, and Stony Brook. William & Mary lost to UNC by eight points. Northeastern was within a basket of UConn. Jacksonville beat Arizona St.

Yet when the selection committee has the option, which school would it take, Jacksonville or Arizona St.? When we're honest with ourselves, we all know the answer.

The only way I would consider a 96-team field is by having two automatic bids from each conference. The regular season champion and the tournament champion from each league should get a berth. In some leagues, it might be the same team, expanding the bubble (which will allow the NCAA to pack the North Carolinas of the world into the field).

It guarantees each conference is represented in the tournament twice (let's say the top two finishers in the Ivy League regular season get to go, sort of an Ivy League wild card situation).

This would reapportion some of the lost importance on the regular season, albeit only on the conference schedule. There is still less incentive than ever for big-time programs to step outside of their comfort zone and play tough non-conference games. Unless you're a diehard fan of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, say goodbye to entertaining early-season basketball.

But at least the regular season means something, and it adds an interesting dynamic to those also less-important conference tournaments. The regular season champion has much less incentive to play their hearts out than ever before, probably opening the path for other, hungrier schools to secure their bids.

But best of all, this gives the NCAA the additional tournament games that it wants while minimizing its role in hand-picking the teams that play those games. They would still get to seed everybody, but the smaller the role of the selection committee, the better I will sleep at night.

I don't want to see the expanded tournament in any case, but considering the apparent inevitability of the move at some point between 2011 and 2014, this seems like the best we can hope for.


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