Even if you’re just a casual follower of college basketball, there’s a good chance you have heard all the recent murmurs about the possible expansion of the NCAA tournament field to a haughty 96 teams, potentially making it more crowded than Olive Garden was on Valentine’s Day (free breadsticks = aphrodisiac).
First of all, this is not a new idea. There has been talk for several years about expanding the field, and the initial number being thrown around was 128, essentially doubling the current 65-team competition. But a tournament with more contestants than a mediocre Bob Saget game show is just bad business, so a much more tangible number, 96, has become the topic of discussion for the NCAA and university presidents.
There are currently 347 teams in Division-I NCAA men’s basketball. Of those teams, only 18.7 percent of them will make March Madness, and another 32 teams will compete in the NIT. But with this new plan, essentially throwing all the NIT teams into the field, this shoots the entrance percentage all the way up to 27.6.
Unsurprisingly, this expansion idea, like most ideas, is all about revenue. The NCAA is at the end of an 11-year, $6 billion television deal with CBS and could go anywhere with its product next. To put it simply: more teams means more games, which means more broadcasting, which means more advertising, which means more money.
Despite more teams — and as we learned through Grover’s transitive property, more money — expanding the field is stupid and it severely damages the aura of March Madness for several reasons.
Currently, there is only one play-in game, and the winner of that game is paired with the top overall seed in that tournament. Under this new format, there would be sixteen play-in games, and every team seeded one through four would get the advantage of being better rested for its first (or is it second?) round game. Is that a privilege deserving of the 16th best team in college basketball? I think it is more fitting of one team. You know, the best team in America.
According to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s “Bracketology” page, 16-8 Marquette is currently projected as a 12-seed in the NCAA tourney, and a member of his “Last Four In” group. Well, that is certainly exciting for Marquette fans. Every game is now under playoff-like conditions, a do-or-die struggle fighting for one of those final spots in the Big Dance. If it was a 96-team field, however, Marquette would already be comfortably in the tourney at this point, and its six remaining conference games and the subsequent conference tourney would not hold much, if any, importance. Not only would expanding the field not be fun, but it would make college basketball boring and meaningless until the tournament starts. Who cares how you perform if you know you’re getting in regardless?
I am very much reminded of the Northwestern Wildcats in this whole expansion saga. Northwestern is the only school in the six power conferences that has never made the tournament. They made the NIT numerous times and are on track to do the same again this year. But under the expansion, they would make it into the NCAA tournament. If you were a Northwestern fan, and your team made the field for the first time in a 96-team tournament, would you feel the same as if it were 65? Or would it be cheapened?
Ever seen that infomercial for those space-saving closet organizers? That promise to make everything tidier and better? Well, this whole thing is like buying one of those worthless products. You begin to unload all the items out of your closet when you begin to notice that it wasn’t too bad to begin with, and now you have a giant mess on the floor that was previously self-contained. That’s the last time I buy products on the TV at 4 a.m.
Do not — let me repeat – do not change the tournament. It’s perfect the way it is.