As the 2010-11 men’s college basketball season kicks off, most Division I schools are harboring dreams of reaching the 68-team NCAA tournament in March. This alone marks a significant change from last year, when the NCAA selection committee could only invite 65 teams.
The new chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, announced this week that there are no plans to further expand the NCAA tournament and that further expansion “isn’t even on our radar screen.” Yet it is hard to believe Smith, and not just because the NCAA has been steadily losing credibility on so many fronts in recent years.
The NCAA tournament has been constantly expanding throughout its history. When the tournament first started in 1939, only eight teams were invited. Moving from 65 to 68 teams is only the latest in a long line of expansions. In today’s profit-crazed culture of college athletics, the allure of even more tournament games and thus more revenue is likely to prove irresistible sometime soon.
If that day comes, I will be saddened. Even this year’s addition of three teams to the tournament field comes with a high cost – rewarding the mediocre.
The additional three spots will go to “bubble teams,” which usually tend to be middle of the pack major-conference teams that hover around a .500 record in conference play. It is not rare for a team with a losing conference record to be selected for one of the final spots in the tourney, such as Georgia Tech (7-9 ACC) in 2010. With more spots for teams on the bubble now, this type of occurrence will become more and more frequent.
Frankly, if you can’t win half your games in your conference, you don’t deserve to have the chance to play for a national championship. The NCAA tournament is supposed to be rewarding the best teams in the country. It’s not about inclusivity – it’s about excellence.
Every expansion of the NCAA tournament devalues the regular season. On the gridiron, it’s the opposite story. Love it or hate it, the Bowl Championship Series has made every game meaningful for national title contenders. No game can be taken for granted – remember Michigan-Appalachian State? The fatal flaw of the BCS is that it is essentially impossible to decide who the two best teams are in any given year. Surely in both college football and basketball, we can strike a balance between picking two teams to play for it all and having a massive playoff that gives mediocre teams the same status as those who have demonstrated excellence all year long.
I fear that the expansion to 68 teams is a small step moving us towards the latter extreme. If the tournament expands to 96 teams, as was overwhelmingly predicted just a few months ago, we will unquestionably reach that extreme. The Washington Post’s Eric Prisbell did a mock 96-team bracket in March, which projected that 13 Big East and 10 ACC teams would qualify. If more than 80 percent of a conference is making the playoffs, why even bother having a regular season? And the addition of so many subpar teams to the tourney would have resulted in some truly pathetic first round games. Prisbell projected matchups of Seton Hall-William & Mary, Wichita State-Northeastern and South Florida-Texas Tech. Real clashes of the titans, no?
any would argue that it doesn’t matter how many teams make the tournament since the best teams will ultimately prove their worth on the court. But this isn’t always the case, as almost anything can happen in 40 minutes of basketball. The point of a regular season is to separate the good teams from the bad. The point of the playoffs is to let the truly deserving teams, as determined by the regular season, battle for the championship.
There will always be debate over who is deserving and who is not. But did a team like last year’s Georgia Tech squad, with a below .500 record in the ACC, show any reason why they deserved to play in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball championship?
I can’t think of any, so I can’t possibly support even the small expansion from 65 to 68 teams. But it’s time to draw a line in the sand before a tide of mediocrity sweeps in the Seton Halls of the world. If the NCAA doesn’t draw that line, it may gain more revenue, but in the process it will destroy the greatest postseason tournament in America.
When expansion comes back on the radar, as it will soon enough, let’s hope the NCAA will think of more than dollars.