The administrators in charge of college sports have begun discussing an expansion of the men’s basketball tournament from its current 68 teams. It would represent the biggest change since 1985, when the field grew to 64, which is the perfect number for this sport.
“It’s time to look at that,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said this week at his conference’s basketball media day.
To make it clear, there is only one piece of advice to offer here to the NCAA and the conference commissioners who essentially run it:
Don’t do it.
Don’t mess with March Madness.
Phillips isn’t alone in discussing expansion and he is well aware that not everyone agrees and there are plenty of issues that blindly going bigger might incur: “we have to be thoughtful.”
Still, this is moving in that direction. Other conference commissioners have said the same. A so-called “transformation committee” is studying all championship events and there has been talk about trying to have 25 percent of a given sport have access to a tournament — that would represent a field of about 90 for men’s hoops (there are 363 D-I teams this year).
Coaches want a bigger tournament because, well, it’s then easier to get in (and they get bonus money for it). Administrators want a bigger tournament because it will increase revenue. Television executives want a bigger tournament because it will generate more viewers for the daytime blocks on truTV.
That doesn’t mean the sport needs it.
The bracket was a perfect 64-team symmetrical enterprise from 1985-2001. There were 31 automatic bids (one per conference) and 33 at-large selections. The event boomed in popularity. Then in 1999, a group of teams left the WAC to form the Mountain West.
Faced with 32 conferences, the NCAA chose to expand the field to 65 teams rather than cut a single at-large spot. By 2011, it went to 68, with the NCAA claiming the “First Four” were “play-in” games not some clumsy consolation prize.
That was a mistake, but not a crushing one. Most fans just ignore the first two days and gear up for the all day action of Thursday's and Friday's first rounds. Over the course of three weeks, Cinderellas are born, champions crowd, buzzer beaters occur.
It’s an incredible event, somehow taking a mostly fringe sport and still capturing America’s imagination. CBS pays an annual average of $770 million to broadcast it (the deal is already undervalued and will get worse since the NCAA foolishly signed a 14-year agreement that runs through 2032).
Adding extra rounds, more mediocre teams, a more confusing or sizable bracket will not help.
While the argument is that a bigger field would provide more “access” and “opportunity” for players and teams, that shouldn’t be the point. It’s big enough. While there is always a team (or three) that has a legitimate gripe about not getting in (usually quality mid-majors pushed out by average major conference teams) that is also part of the fun.
Just about any reasonably successful team is already getting a chance — Indiana was 20-13 last year and had a five game losing streak in February and still got in.
Yes, Division I continues to expand, but it’s at the lowest levels that really have no impact on the parts of the sport that the vast majority of fans follow. The five newcomers this season are Lindenwood (Missouri), Queens College (New York), Southern Indiana, Stonehill (Massachusetts) and Texas A&M-Commerce.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament should be an accomplishment. It currently is. There is a reason players and fans celebrate earning automatic bids or the frantic action in the final weeks to play off the bubble and into the event creates such excitement.
Making it even easier undermines that.
An expanded field will help the mediocre middle of the ACC and Big Ten, not those one-bid leagues. Citing more teams as a reason for a bigger tournament is a sleight of hand.
Most problematic, it messes with the vibe of the event. To add a round, or expand the play-in action means making Tuesday and Wednesday of the week bigger — and essential — rather than just something most fans can ignore.
It also makes deep runs in the tournament more challenging for upstart teams, whose underdog status helps power the event. While the tournament is designed so Kansas can beat North Carolina in the finals and crown a deserving champion, it is equal parts about St. Peter’s reaching the Elite Eight.
This is not about improving the event, it is about getting more major conference teams into the tournament. Other than the well-paid coaches of those teams who fear getting fired, who does this serve?
The NCAA Tournament is a throw-back event of enduring popularity. It was perfect at 64 and tolerable at 68.
It ain’t broke; so please don’t fix it.