Why expanding the NCAA tournament field would be an even bigger mistake than anyone realizes.

This is an intervention. As a college football guy, I cannot stand idly by while the NCAA ruins not only perhaps the best tournament in all of sports, but secretly, one of the most meaningful, and in the process prove that college football playoff critics are right when they claim that any playoff would inevitably expand.

I have to make a confession. Before my schedule and workload went all to hell, I was planning on taking time this year to do my own “bracketology” exercise, just for one year, in part to serve as a demonstration that the college basketball regular season, supposedly incredibly devalued, is in fact more meaningful than ANY other major American sport other than college football. The NFL regular season is tense and exciting all the way to the end as you watch and see who can lock up playoff berths, and everyone thinks college basketball only begins in March, yet each college basketball regular season game is about as meaningful as an NFL game. The math proves it (even if I may have slightly undercounted the number of games). Right now, the NCAA tournament is for elite teams only. But people don’t realize this because a) they only look at the raw number of 65 teams and b) they only pay attention to the big-name, BCS conference teams that are in the field every year, and note that the bubble teamsĀ  – who get 11 and 12 seeds – never make the Final Four, which rarely sees a team seeded lower than 9. I would have attempted to show that there is as much at stake in any college basketball game as in the NFL, and even for BCS teams, more than in baseball, the NBA, or the NHL. You just need the right perspective on it.

I had too much to do (and too little in the way of a decent place to work) to engage in my own bracketology exercise, and I’m starting to regret it, because I may never get another chance to do so with a 65-team field, and if the NCAA expands to 96, they may make the meaningless regular season a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Expanding the tournament to 96 teams would not be a complete disaster, at least at first glance. Even if the NCAA were to double the tournament field the importance of each game would be more than in baseball, the NBA, or the NHL, and they would still select a slightly smaller percentage of the teams to the postseason than the NFL. But the proposed 96-team field would already make it less meaningful than not only the NFL, but bowls in college football, something else college basketball is better at right now. And at a time when college basketball has a reputation for a meaningless regular season, the NCAA can’t afford to dilute the regular season any more.

Two things make the NCAA tournament great, and therefore wildly popular. The most obvious is Cinderella, which is why the first round or two is often the most enjoyable. The other, less obvious, thing is that seeds are meaningful, not only for where you will play the first four rounds but who you’ll play, because even the crappiest of conferences gets an auto bid. A 4 or 5 seed has to deal with a potential upset bid; a 1 seed has never lost to a 16, so they can just coast. Keep in mind that a 5 seed is still one of the top 20 teams in the country, good enough to be ranked in the polls, and good enough to make it to the Final Four with some regularity. These are good, prominent teams that still have to keep fighting for protection in regional and subregional site selection, as well as for seeding that could mean the difference between a run to the Elite Eight or Final Four, or a first-round shocker.

Expanding the tournament to 96 teams would hurt both of these so much it could kill the tournament as we know it. Yes, a 96-team field opens the possibility of byes… to the top 8 seeds. You go from being in the top 16 being meaningful with significant differences between them (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, one of the best teams in the SWAC, is 194th out of 347 in the RPI) to being in the top 32 being meaningful with lesser differences between them. There aren’t going to be any more auto bids, so the current no-name underdogs from no-name conferences will go from being seeded 12-16 to 20-24, and go from playing teams seeded 1-5 to teams seeded 9-13 – teams currently on the bubble or even out of the tournament! In the second round (what is now the first) they’d play teams seeded 4-8, but only if they’d already survived one game. 1 and 2 seeds will not be as safe as before, but neither will they be playing Cinderellas as pure – teams that don’t need auto bids to play in the NIT now. (Wait… aren’t those mostly BCS conference teams?) What’s more, because every one of the top 8 seeds would be playing an NIT- or bubble- caliber team, or alternately a weak-conference team good enough to beat an NIT- or bubble- caliber team, the consequences for moving a seed line become a lot less. And while a bubble team like George Mason making the Final Four is rare, it’s still possible – but it’s rare enough I don’t think it would ever happen in an expanded field, rendering all the bubble teams – and thus the bubble discussion – completely irrelevant.

Goliath isn’t as Goliath-like, David isn’t as David-like, and the regular season becomes even less meaningful – and there’s less reason to watch the tournament, or even follow college basketball, at all. So much for the notion that more games = more money.

One of the signs that college basketball’s regular season has become diluted (in the public eye) and the tournament too much the focus of the sport is the parade of coaches coming out in favor of an expanded field, saying that all kids should have the experience of going to the NCAA tournament. Being in the top 18% of teams in the country is every student-athlete’s birthright. Of course, a lot of these coaches are assessed on the standard of “NCAA Tournament or bust” – they are expected to make the tournament, and if they can’t, they lose their jobs, so they’re interested in making it easier for them to keep their jobs than the shockingly high standard they’re held to now. So let’s expand the field so being in the top 96 (really the top 80 or so) is magically just as good as being in the top 64 (really 45 or so) is now. So why isn’t it good enough now?

College basketball doesn’t have a regular season problem, a too-small-tournament problem, or even a too-large-tournament problem. It has a perception problem. We’re better off fixing that before we make changes that could kill the sport. It’s time people realized that making the NIT is far from a disaster – it means you’ve achieved more than members of the baseball, NBA, or NHL postseasons. Turning it from a chance to win a tournament to a chance to play one extra game than the best teams isn’t the best way to go about that, and neither is making the NCAA tournament less of an elite club.

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