John's guest-hosting this week while Kyle's in Vancouver.
The NCAA is considering
expanding the D-I men's basketball tournament to either 68 or 96 teams, and it is the latter scenario that has occasioned the most discussion and debate. After all, adding three more teams is less interesting and notable than adding 31 new entrants.
Personally, I am very leery of changing the tournament, for the simple reason that when you find yourself in the rare and treasured moment of having something that you actually venerate, you don't set about knocking down walls and adding whole new wings. Careful preservation and simple upkeep are enough. And so it happens that I've written things like this
The idea of expanding the tournament past 65 teams has pretty reliably met with intense outrage....
To the depths of my sports being, I am hard-wired with the same protective impulse that drives this outrage. No, the 65-team tournament isn't perfect, but then again neither are any of us. Good grief, I watched this tournament for years--decades--when it was announced by Billy Packer. Need I say more? March Madness is quite simply the gold standard to which all other American team-sport postseasons are held. (Ask college football.) You don't trifle with the gold standard lightly.
And like this
In day-to-day life I'm a happy meliorist who makes fun of how college football fans act like each annual futzing with the clock rules in their stupid four-hour games is tantamount to the Dreyfus Affair. But then talk starts to circulate about expanding the NCAA basketball tournament to 96 teams and suddenly I'm kissing the family goodbye and living in a tree outside NCAA headquarters, armed with a bullhorn and a sign that keeps a running tally of my hunger strike.
At the same time nothing makes a happy meliorist unhappy like really stupid arguments that purport to second his side of the discussion. So let me be clear.1. Of course the NCAA is doing it for the money. So bloody what?
The organization has been admirably forthright and candid about the fact that if expansion happens it will be for money. (Turn to page 3, item 2 under "Revenue Generation
." HT: Michael Litos
The NCAA finds itself in the unusual position of being able to make literally millions of additional untapped dollars with a simple wave of its expansionist hand. Now, why is that new money available? Because we, the very people who are yelling about expansion, will in fact watch those new games. (I've admitted I will.)
Observers who rue the arrival of "big money" in college basketball are lamenting the historical moment when you and I as viewers were given access to the sport we love. When millions of eyeballs are trained on the same thing, the result is money, the only question being who gets how much.
Of course you can argue that the NCAA should still forego expansion in its role as a conservator of something that's priceless and too perfect for meddling. But to imply that the NCAA is somehow debauched or reprehensible if they move to meet a demand that we as fans are supplying is simply infantile.2. A larger tournament won't "cheapen" the regular season.
As criticism of expansion has filled the airwaves, I've been amazed and a little embarrassed to find that apparently I've been following college basketball the wrong way all these years. If I'm understanding this correctly, the raison d'etre of the regular season is merely to fix one's attention solely and exclusively on bubble teams. Who cares about Butler or Old Dominion? They're already in! Can Kansas run the table in the Big 12 and do something that hasn't happened in "power"-conference basketball for seven years? Uh, hello, I'm trying to pay attention to Oklahoma State, Florida, Ole Miss, and Cincinnati here.
With a 96-team field, the quest for mere inclusion would indeed move to a different set of less formidable teams. But beyond inclusion teams will still want the best seed they can get. And in a new world order with 96 teams a first-round bye would be particularly prized and would in all likelihood spawn its own new variant of bracketology and bubble watching: Has Team X secured a bye?
Lastly I do have to wonder if conference rivalries will really become such desiccated husks simply because the tournament has expanded. Will Saint Mary's really decide it suddenly doesn't care very much either way about beating Gonzaga in Moraga? Somehow I doubt it.
So while I may be hesitant to change something as hallowed as March Madness, I can at least acknowledge the following. The best philosophical argument in favor of expansion is opportunity. And the best historical argument in favor of expansion is, of course, George Mason in 2006.
The reason the NCAA tournament is quite rightly understood to be infinitely superior to that misbegotten wretch of oligopolistic machination known as the college football postseason is because in college hoops 65 teams are given an opening tip on a basketball floor, to do with what they will. Those tips aren't all created equal, of course. The 16-seeds are still winless after a quarter-century of trying. But the opportunities, however small they may be in some cases, are at least present. And there isn't a team in the country that wouldn't say no to the NIT or CBI for a shot at being the 96th team in the NCAA tournament. They want the opportunity.
Which is all well and good but in the overwhelming majority of instances the result of that opportunity will be swift extinction. The bracket's gravitational pull toward elimination is remorseless.
George Mason famously achieved escape velocity in 2006. From my chair their triumph has always held an added qualitative luster beyond the mere (ha) quantitative fact that a CAA team won four tournament games and made the Final Four. The Patriots beat Connecticut, a program synonymous with fearsome interior defense, by setting Will Thomas loose and attacking the paint. "We got beat in the post," Jim Calhoun said correctly and admiringly
that day, "which we haven't really all year, and we got beat good in the post."
UConn that year was arguably the most talented college team of the past decade, more so than Florida in 2007 or North Carolina in 2005 or 2009. Five of the first 40 players taken in the 2006 NBA draft were from that Connecticut team. And yet Mason beat the Huskies at their own game, in perhaps the greatest regional final I've ever seen. What the Patriots achieved in 2006 was just and systemic. There was nothing flukey about it.
But for our current purposes, the single most important aspect of that George Mason team is that their bid was an at-large. They didn't win their opportunity as a matter of procedural automation, they were given
their opportunity as a matter of discretionary choice.
I'm not eager to expand the NCAA tournament but I can add. Right now 19 percent of D-I teams make the tournament. If the field is expanded that figure will go up to 28 percent. The question for me or for any rightly protective tournament purist is whether a postseason that still excludes more than 70 percent of all teams is really so egregiously watered-down. Your answer may well depend on which side of the Red Line
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