NCAA Tournament: If It Ain't Broke..

December 10th, 2009

"The Best Just Got Better" – slogan for “New Coke”, 25 years ago.

In a week that saw Kentucky’s super-frosh John Wall introduce himself to the country against two national powers in North Carolina and UConn, and Texas Tech establish itself as the surprise of the young season, a bigger story got largely overlooked.

Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the NCAA has started meeting with broadcasters to look into the value of expanding the NCAA Tournament field. The idea, in its early form, would be to increase the number of teams from 65 to a staggering 96, with the top 32 teams receiving byes in an extra first week.

As ESPN’s Andy Katz reported, the NCAA examined expanding the Tournament four years ago and rejected it as unnecessary. Even then, according to Katz, the discussions four years ago were only “about moving from 65 teams to 68 with four opening-round games in Dayton, Ohio, in which eight teams would play for the four 16 seeds.”

What changed since then? The NCAA can opt out of its multi-billion dollar CBS deal at the end of the 2010 Final Four, and now that time is only a few months away. The NCAA, like any business, wants to know if there is even more revenues to be had – possibly with ESPN or with a new deal with CBS - should they expand the Tournament even more.

It would be a colossal mistake.

Just to give one example. Whether the NCAA Selection Committee likes to admit it or not, a significant value is usually placed on a team’s RPI when deciding seeding or an invitation. With 34 at large berths available, it is rare (although it has happened) that a team not qualifying for an automatic bid with an RPI in the top 40 will get passed over. Traditionally, teams finding themselves ranked in the 50s or even 60s are squarely on the bubble and could be considered an even bet to get to the Dance.

At the close of last season, the ACC had nine teams with an RPI no worse than 68 (Boston College). The Big East had eleven teams with an RPI in the top 90. The Big 12 had nine with an RPI of 75 or better. The Big 10? They had eight teams in the top 50, with Northwestern coming in later at 80. The SEC, even in a terrible year for the conference, had eight teams no worse than 83 (Ole Miss). The PAC 10 had eight teams in the top 90.

So, had that system been in place last season, you would have had a grand total of 54 teams in the BCS conferences (out of 73 teams) that would stand a chance, or at least have an argument, for getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Heck, with 65 at large berths suddenly available, most of those teams would probably get in.

Think of what that would mean for those conference tournaments. Would you tune in to the ACC Tournament knowing that all but three teams already locked up an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament? Would you watch the Wednesday night 8-9 game in the Big East Tournament when both teams are only playing for NCAA seeding?

The mid-major conferences would suffer as well. ESPN’s Championship Week to me is one of the most fascinating weeks of the season. Watching kids, sometimes non-scholarship four year players, play their guts out because a win means going to the Dance, and a loss probably ends their season is something special, even if it’s not well-played. But would I still set my DVR to the MEAC Championship if I knew there wasn’t as much at stake? That both teams had a reasonable shot at the Dance? Probably not.

The fact is that a good controversy is great for the game. Every year you can make a strong case for why certain teams should have been selected over a team that got into the Dance. You can also usually make a good case for why the NCAA Selection Committee got it right. Either way you’re arguing about the best teams in college basketball, and when you’re arguing about it you’re talking about it, and the more people that talk about it, the better it is for the sport.

That’s why the annual debate over all the worthy teams on “the bubble” is not only entertaining, but a big reason college basketball is as big as it is today. It’s also one reason watering down that debate by letting just about every average team into the Dance could hurt the game in the long run.

As to the oft-cited (mainly by over-stressed coaches whose job security depends on NCAA appearances) complaint that the current system isn’t fair enough to all teams, give me a break. Every single team in Division I college basketball, all 347 of them, has a chance to win the national championship. Win the conference, you go to the Dance. Win six games, you lift the trophy. Doesn’t matter if you’re Kentucky or Campbell. Every single team on the bubble is there because they recently lost a big game. Deserving or not, at the end of the day, they still have only themselves to blame.

The NCAA Tournament is the single greatest event in American sports. It is three weeks of complete saturation of the best college basketball has to offer, with each game an elimination game, with each game coming one step closer to a championship.

But it’s not great because there are a lot of teams playing. It’s great because there are a lot of good teams playing. 31 teams are there because they won their conference championship – they earned their way in. The others represent (in theory) the 34 best teams remaining.

But with the best 32 teams getting byes under the new proposal, how many people would really tune in to see the rest of the bunch battle it out the first weekend? How many casual fans, or people who don’t really follow college basketball, would help nosedive their office productivity to watch two 15 win teams commit 40 turnovers in a half empty arena in Boise? ESPN and CBS need to seriously examine that question before getting into a multi-billion dollar bidding war.

Sometimes the best thing to do, and the hardest, is to do nothing. The ratings aren’t where CBS and the NCAA would like them to be, granted, with midday games during workdays, and games that last until midnight on the east coast. But there are possible solutions: A more effective marketing campaign perhaps, or even showing less commercials and more basketball (God forbid).

But diluting the greatest sporting event in the country shouldn’t be one of them.