128 Sets of Cheerleaders? Thanks But No Thanks

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IJune 25, 2006

IconToday, the Associated Press ran a story concerning the possible expansion of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to 128 teams from its present 65. This article comes on the heels of the ACC's post-season coaches' conference, where Leonard Hamilton — Florida State head coach and apparent whiner extraordinaire — opined that the tournament should be expanded so that all the "good" teams from the power conferences would surely get in. Who on Earth could he have been talking about? Sour grapes, Len.
Of course, such an expansion — for the idiots out there — would add another full round to the tournament and bring with it truckloads of sweet-smelling cash. However, it also takes the term "March Madness" to unbearable extremes, and there is definitely such a thing as too much madness.
Instead of having 20-10 teams such as Hamilton's moaning about having to suit up for the NIT, we'll have 14-16 teams moaning about not being invited to the Big Dance. Last year, Drexel wound up 129th in the RPI (according to Jerry Palm of collegerpi.com). They went 15-16, losing to basketball powerhouses Towson, VCU, and LaSalle. For a major team, DePaul (91st) probably would have been in easily despite their 5-11 conference record.

Has anyone who shouts these expansion wishes genuinely thought this through with the good of college basketball in mind? Do you really want to go throwing out automatic bids to two teams from every conference? Do you really want to see Duke blow the bejesus out of, say, the St. Peter's Peacocks (128th in the RPI)? Do you really want to hear the obnoxious duo (Packer and Nantz) ramble on about how 23 seeds do well against 9 seeds?

If so, you need to lay off the oxycontin.  Look, I know certain maniacal, senile, half-blind pundits like to roar about how every team in college basketball is "outstanding, baby!" but that just isn't the case.  There are, in any given year, maybe 15 teams that merit a shot at the title.  However many teams your laudanum-induced fantasies might have you believe deserve a shot to take those 15 down, I can almost guarantee it is well below 113. As is, it happens to work beautifully, and I don't even see the need to add one more game, nonetheless a whole round; the bubble-whiners will exist at any arbitrary level.  Why not stick with a standard that works? 

Right now, March has a lot working in its favor.  First, conference tournaments and high-profile late-season games almost always mean something.  Much of that vanishes with expansion.  Wake Forest, the dead-last crappiest team in the ACC, had a 17-16 record last year with an RPI of 85.  With them almost certainly in, what would the ACC's final weeks and tournament mean?  Seeding?  Oh, big deal.  It's infinitely more exciting as do-or-die.  Second, the tournament as is makes for great television and is ingrained in sports fans' minds.  Two rounds, two rounds, Final Four.  Games start Thursday, so schedule work around that.  It's just sort of a golden rule that you don't mess with a winning television formula such as this.  When would this extra round be played?  Would another weekend be added to an already-packed season?  Want to play them on Tuesday?  Yeah, that works — just look at the ratings for that play-in game!

Most importantly, the quality of the basketball and the interest of fans both drop like rocks.  Every game right now has a team nominally among the top 32 in the country, with either a great matchup or a badly-desired upset (like Kansas going down).  Instead of those tenuous 8 vs. 9 seed games where a mediocre "big" school takes on an upstart mid-major, the lowest-seedeed games would become 16's and 17's slugging it out.  How about South Alabama and Louisiana Tech hooping it up in Boise?  Anyone?
The bottom line is that the NCAA has created a magical system that makes ditzy secretaries fill out elaborate bracket sheets and ignore work more than usual to watch basketball of all things.  You don't mess that up.  I should also note here that I have a vested interest in this expansion.  As a Northwestern alumnus, my alma mater might have a chance in hell at making their first tournament — and they wouldn't even have to put a good team on the floor to do it!

Gripe all you want, coaches who don't want to be fired.  Go ahead and point out that Division I has expanded to 320+ teams.  Whose fault is that?  Do you really want to make it so that 35-40% of all players each year go to the tournament, which is supposedly an honor and something to be cherished?    Frankly, I don't.  Every team that misses the tournament and whines did, at some point, blow it big time.  So coaches, if you want to make the NCAA's, do it the honest way — by winning basketball games.  For you, Leonard Hamilton, that means not getting your butt kicked in by Wake Forest, not losing to Miami, and maybe winning another road game or two.  If anything, the NCAA should cut an at-large and get rid of that stupid play-in game.

Besides, it'd be too damn hard to fit 128 teams on one bracket sheet, anyway.