Greedy. Stupid. Disastrous.
These are just a few of the words you've probably heard bitter fans use to describe the evil that looms over the basketball world. A concept so ominous that hoops aficionados cringe at the very mention of "that which shall not be named." Yes (a quick look around to make sure we're alone), I'm talking about the expansion of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
But is it really that bad? Is this the end of the perfect playoff system that college basketball has long enjoyed or just another tweak that reflects the fact that basketball is a changing game? I'm inclined to say the latter.
It seems that as long as the tournament has been around, there has always been a push for the NCAA to expand it. In fact, March Madness has been tweaked twice before to include more teams.
Between 1984 and 1985, the tournament expanded from 53 to 64 teams and in 2001, the committee decided to add an additional team, making it a field of 65. Was the tournament change resisted? You bet it was. The guys creating the recipe for New Coke probably joked about how dumb of an idea it was. But what do you know, the tournament change was a success.
On April 1, Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, outlined the logistics for what may be the new March Madness format. The tournament will go from 65 to 96 teams, more or less merging with the National Invitational Tournament. It would begin on a Thursday or Friday as it normally does, but only teams seeded 33 to 96 would play on those days. The winners of the first round would then play teams 1 through 32 on Saturday and Sunday. The tournament would be no longer than the current one, but would feature more games.
So here we are again. The plan is on the table and the debating begins. To expand or not to expand, that is the question. And the answer is best arrived at by addressing the critics' claims.
Sports critics have three major concerns about the new larger tournament: it waters down the field, it ignores the fans and it devalues the regular season and conference tournaments.
Water down the field, eh? As previously mentioned, the new NCAA tournament format would now feature the National Invitational Tournament's field as well. I would have to disagree with the notion that NIT teams aren't capable of competing with NCAA tournament teams. Many of the NIT's best, at some point, demonstrate the capability to beat those in the NCAA field. For example, the University of Connecticut beat Notre Dame, Villanova, West Virginia and Texas; William & Mary beat Richmond, Maryland and Wake Forest; and Illinois beat Clemson, Michigan State and Wisconsin twice. Even the NIT's sixth-seeded North Carolina State University beat national champion Duke by a score of 88-74 on Jan. 20.
Twenty-five years ago, people brought up this same concern that expansion would water down the tournament. They claimed that the new seeds would never be able to actually win games in the tournament. Yet, year after year, they do. Just take a look at this year's tournament.
Thirteenth-seeded Murray State beat Vanderbilt and 14-seed Ohio University beat Georgetown. Yes, it's true a 16-seed has never beaten a one-seed, but the 16 spots are nearly always conference tournament winners. I'd be willing to bet that a talent-loaded team from a power conference like UConn or North Carolina has a better shot against Kansas than Lehigh, even if it is having an off season.
The addition of the 32 NIT teams will not water down the tournament. On the contrary, it would bring more talent and result in a bigger, better tournament.
This brings me to the claim that the tournament expansion ignores the fan. What?! I'd have to say that Virginia Tech and Illinois fans would disagree. If you've ever had your team snubbed by the NCAA tournament committee, you know that it sucks. The expansion gives your team a better shot at getting in. Consequently, it gets more fans involved.
No one cares about the NIT. Personally, I'd rather see my team lose in the Big Dance than win the whole National Invitational. There's a certain element of patronizing that comes with these lesser tournaments. If you win one, it's cute and nice, you may feel warm and fuzzy and celebrate a bit, but in reality, your team just placed 66th or worse, not first. So why not give them a shot and eliminate the meaningless NIT?
In addition to this, expanding the tournament would create room for mid-majors. If this year's tournament has proven anything, it is that mid-majors can now compete with many members of the power conferences. But, historically, smaller schools have been punished for not playing the schedules of their power conference peers and have been snubbed come tournament time. Top-tier teams won't schedule mid-majors, because it tends to be a lose-lose. If a team from a conference like the ACC or Big East wins, it's just another game, but if they lose, it's a blemish. Expanding the tournament would alleviate some of the backlash that comes with having a mid-major schedule.
This brings us to the third and final claim that the expansion would make conference tournaments and the regular season meaningless. Basketball is and always will be a competitive sport. Teams are still competing for a seed and still want to win.
Doing well in a conference tournament helps your team in the Big Dance. Just look at the ACC and Big East this season. Duke won the ACC conference tournament and went on to win the championship game. Likewise, West Virginia won the Big East and went to a Final Four finish. Both of these teams went farther than their conference peers.
Whether it's the regular season or a conference tournament, momentum matters. That's not going to change just because 32 teams were added.
I can understand how changing a good thing can be a dangerous game and I see that there are some faults in the new plan. But I'm willing to go out on a limb and accept that there is a chance that this could be for the best. Basketball is a growing sport and it's about time the tournament grew along with it.
Contact staff writer Brenton Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org