Expanding March Would Be Madness

published March 8, 2010

Some bad ideas never go away.  They linger, they’re raised again and again, and people with sense get tired of slapping them down, so eventually they start to sound less awful.

I fear that’s happening with the notion of expanding March Madness.

The tournament really needs more than 64 teams?  Really?

(The committee will tell you there are 65 teams.  This is nonsense.  There are 64, one of whom qualifies by winning a play-in game against another team from a second-class conference.)

The purpose of the tournament is to determine a national champion.  Are there more than 64 teams that have a reasonable shot?  Is it ever more than ten to fifteen?

Since the NCAAs went to the 64-team format in 1985, fifty teams have played in the finals.  Forty-three of them were a one-, two-, or three-seed in their region.  The others were two fours, two fives, two sixes, and Villanova (an eight) over Georgetown.  Three teams seeded four or higher have won it all in those twenty-five years: Arizona (4) in 1997; Kansas (6) in 1988; Villanova in 1985.

But it’s about fairness, not winning, right?

Jim Boeheim, Syracuse coach, told CNN, “My issue is the last eight teams selected for the tournament by the committee are going to look just like the eight that are left out, and those are going to be teams that win 22-23 games.”

He was arguing for expansion, but his point would work as well if you wanted to reduce the field to 56.

In December, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski argued for going to ninety-six teams, including the regular-season champions as well as the tournament champions for each conference.  He told the Duke Chronicle, “I don’t think we put enough value on the regular season. By expanding to that – and not having the NIT – you reward everybody who wins the regular season. So it puts value on the regular season. I think it would upgrade everything.”

That’s a pretty good argument for getting rid of the conference tournaments, not for expanding the NCAAs.

There are thirty-one conferences whose champions get tournament bids.  Thirty of them have year-end tournaments; only the Ivy League determines its representative through the traditional season-long round robin.

In every conference in America except one, then, nearly every team has a shot at making the NCAA tournament no matter dreadful a season it’s had.  Grambling State, 5-20 on the season and ranked #342 in the country in RPI, can play its way into the NCAAs if it wins the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament in Shreveport/Bossier City, Louisiana.

Some teams with twenty or even twenty-five wins will be left out, while others with win totals in the teens will make the field.  I don’t have to tell you which group will come from the more prominent conferences.

There should be a limit on how many teams can make the field from a given conference – I’d say five.  Will you feel robbed if you don’t get to see the Big East’s sixth-best team match up with the Big Ten’s fourth?  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see St. Mary’s or San Diego State on the national stage instead of the usual diet of Illinois and Louisville?  The fact is, none of these four is going to win the tournament anyway; what makes March Madness great is the instant emergence of an unexpected team that wins a game or three.  There’s no fun in rooting for an underdog with an overdog’s pedigree.

Expanding the tournament isn’t actually about fairness.  The big conferences will get even more teams in, their seventh and eighth-place finishers making the field and helping the rich get richer.  And money’s what it’s really all about.  The NCAA can opt out of the last three years of its contract with CBS to televise the tournament, and may dangle the possibility of more teams and more games in the hope of drawing more bidders and more dollars.

Few things in sports are work as well as March Madness. Here’s hoping this talk is just hot air.

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