Say No to Expanding the NCAA Tournament

April 1st, 2006
The NFL is far, far and away the best-run major sporting organization in this country, with others not even being close. Why more leagues don’t copy the NFL model is a mystery, because what’s good for the NFL is more often than not going to be good for any other major sporting organization.


The NCAA would be wise to do some NFL watching right about now. The pro football league just shot down a proposal to increase its playoffs, making the smart decision to not risk diminishing the importance of its regular season or the integrity of its current postseason format. And that’s the exact same decision that should come from the NCAA on the current movement to expand the NCAA Tournament field to include more teams.


Some college basketball coaches are drumming up support within their ranks to put pressure on the NCAA to add more bids to its crown jewel event. One scenario would be to add enough teams to the tourney to have four play-in games.


It’s a lousy idea (and not because the NFL didn’t expand its postseason). It’s a step back in time, and not a good one. It just throws a monkey wrench into something that doesn’t need fixing. In fact, most ideas to change the tourney are lousy. Unless they involve improving CBS’s coverage. Then we can talk.


As obvious as the reasons are for the historical growth of the tourney, it seems some just don’t understand them. The tournament has never been as popular as when it hit the just-right number of 64 teams, mixing the right amount of inclusion and exclusion, charm stories and heavyweights into one neat little package that has run like a Cadillac for 20 years.


Like the pod system and several other changes to the tourney in recent years, this would just be another regression back to days when the tourney wasn’t what it is now. Just like giving teams games near home in the early rounds again was a poor move, adding more play-in games is also an unnecessary step back into the early 1980s.


Of course, one can easily understand where the coaches are coming from. They are hardly impartial arbiters on this issue and have every reason to get behind this proposal. Quite simply, more teams in the NCAA Tournament theoretically equals more coaches’ jobs being safer. Why wouldn’t coaches want this?


This is exactly why coaches shouldn’t be in charge of making decisions like this one. They aren’t thinking about the possible dilution of a product. They’re thinking about now, and for the most part they’re thinking about themselves. They can hardly be blamed for the latter, but the former is the reason why there are administrators who are paid to think about the future, not just the present. A forward-thinking administrator will see the negatives to this much more quickly than a coach will.


More play-in games most certainly won’t make the tourney better, and most likely would just decrease the tourney’s main asset, its ‘Cinderella’ value. (And you can assume with at least 98% certainty that the play-in games would involve champions of lower rated conferences, while at-large teams would continue to be safe in the field as they are now.)


The current play-in game and its NCAA reference as the “Opening Round Game” is one of the bigger shams this side of Barry Bonds’ home run records. It’s a play-in game, a scarlet letter game, and it cheats the loser out of a real NCAA Tournament experience. (In fact, the existence of a play-in game now is a sham in itself. If not for the WAC schools that approved the super-sizing of that league and then quickly bailed to form the Mountain West, we wouldn’t have a play-in game. And somehow the MWC every year gets an automatic bid, while leagues like the MEAC, SWAC or Southland typically are entered in the play-in game.)


The winner of a play-in game now gets to say it won an NCAA Tournament game against a fellow 16 seed. Big deal. The loser gets a few nice parting gifts. The game is played on cable in front of a small crowd. The event is such a non-event that even basketball-mad Dayton doesn’t draw well for it. The essence of March Madness, it is not.


So just how would more play-in games be a solution to this? History shows they wouldn’t be received any more warmly than the one game is now. Before expanding the field to 64 teams in 1985, the prior two tourneys featured several play-in games. Maybe the best measure of their insignificance is that, while many know Richmond beat a Charles Barkley/Chuck Person-led Auburn team in 1984, hardly a soul is aware that the Spiders wouldn’t even have been in that game had they not beaten Rider in a play-in.


A play-in game is not a real NCAA Tournament game, cut and dried. It’s a black mark on the tourney and dilutes its quality and charm, not to mention it’s completely unfair to deserving conference champions who rightfully earn bids to the tourney. Anyone see Albany, Winthrop, Murray State or Penn in this year’s tourney? Now imagine them having to play each other just to get in the field, while some 12-loss ACC team gets an at-large bid instead. And that’s the other part of this, that we shouldn’t be forcing league champs into these games when there’s so much mediocrity flowing around them.


Coaches argue that there are good teams missing the field now. That depends on your definition of ‘good.’ Let us not mistake the parity this year for excellence; a few weeks before Selection Sunday, many were begging for someone, anyone to stake a claim for some of the final at-large bids. Some exciting late season upsets saved us from that to an extent, but the point is that in most cases, the final at-large teams are hardly dominant over the season.


Some will immediately point to George Mason as a reason to expand the field. The Patriots indeed have proven that those last at-larges are capable of going a long way in the tourney, but that has little to do with whether or not they deserved to be in the NCAAs. George Mason earned its bid in the regular season, not in the postseason; same with Bradley, Michigan, South Carolina, Cincinnati and others.


If George Mason proves anything, it is that the focus should be on continuing to work to get the right at-large teams in (like Mason and Bradley) instead of the wrong ones (like Air Force or Seton Hall). With all the criteria the NCAA has established for selection, it isn’t nearly as hard to separate the worthy teams as some think, it’s simply a matter of the committee doing its job correctly and consistently.


A big part of the tournament’s appeal is its inclusiveness, but just as big a part is its exclusivity. About one in five Division I schools will get into the NCAA Tournament. With 34 at-large bids, there is room for teams that lose as many as 12-13 games in a season to still get at-large bids. The field is plenty large enough to get in most every team that deserves to be in, as well as some that probably don’t deserve it.


Of course, there will always be bubble debate no matter where the cut-off is, but do we really need to lower the bar any more? Would it really have been that important to get Maryland or Colorado in this year? These teams had plenty of chances to make the tourney this year and blew almost all of them. Letting them in would just make the regular season even more meaningless than it is now.


There is always a natural tendency for some to want to take a successful entity and grow it even more. However, there also needs to be some respect for history when considering such changes. It’s disappointing to see how some have forgotten that the NCAA tourney was not one of this country’s two biggest events before it expanded to 64 teams.


It’s not just coincidence that the 64-team field and the tourney’s explosion in growth happened at the same time. Ask any casual fan what they think of first when they think NCAA Tournament, and they’ll almost certainly mention something about its unpredictability and the so-called little guys who come from nowhere to provide exciting moments. Before 1985, you had little of that. While the tourney does not necessarily need a whole lot more of this, it most certainly doesn’t need less.


As a final note, it should be pointed out what happened to basketball in the state of Indiana after it tinkered with it very popular high school tournament. As noted in an excellent article by’s Pat Forde this week, the popularity of the state tourney in Indiana has plummeted since the state high school association went to a four-class system.


Short of a BCS revolt, the NCAA Tournament is in no danger of seeing its popularity plummet anytime soon. But the lesson from Indiana should be this: tweaking a good thing too much, and you may lose that good thing. Those of us who are so passionate about the NCAA Tournament don’t want to see a good thing lost.