— I’m not known for showing sympathy to teams that get left out of the NCAA tournament. If you’re arguing that you should be the 60th or 65th team in a 65-team field instead of East GED State, my response has been to point out that you ain’t going anywhere anyway. You want in, get a better team. It’s that simple.
That’s been my opinion and I’ve stuck to it — until now.
I’m here today to say that I’ve been wrong, and the last team to feel the bubble pop underneath it is just as worthy of a place in intercollegiate athletics’ greatest show as the last team to survive the cold calculations of the selection committee. It’s time to expand the tournament.
The only thing that keeps so many teams out is the NCAA’s antiquated notion that a 64-team tournament — with a 65th team required to attempt to prove its worthiness in a Tuesday play-in game — is the perfect number of teams for a proper tournament.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. The NCAA started its tournament in 1939 with eight teams. Twelve years later, the field was doubled to 16. From 1951-74, the field varied each year, ranging between 16 and 25 teams. By 1975, the field was set at 32, but that lasted just three seasons before it expanded to 40 in 1979, 48 in 1980, 52 in 1983, 53 in 1984 and finally to 64 in 1985. The 65th team and the play-in game were added in 2001.
So from the beginning, the size of the field was in a near-constant state of flux. Then it hit 64 and it stuck there. Meanwhile, the number of schools playing Division I basketball has been multiplying like rabbits, from around 150 in the 1950s to more than 350 today.
I suspect that money has something to do with the unwillingness to expand the tournament to reflect the expansion in the game. To expand the tournament will mean that the receipts will have to be spread around to more teams. That means the big conferences with multiple teams entered won’t make as much money as they’re accustomed to. More teams mean more travel expenses, and the NCAA probably wouldn’t like that, either.
Then there’s the NCAA’s losers’ bracket — the N.I.T. tournament. Once an independent tournament that originally rivaled the NCAA’s, the N.I.T. is now owned by the NCAA. Adding teams to March Madness means taking them away from the N.I.T., which could mean killing that tournament altogether. Among the few that would miss it is the outfit that owns it — the NCAA. So that’s another factor mitigating against doing the right thing.
But come on, folks. It’s been 24 years without a significant expansion of the tournament, the longest period in the event’s history. I’d say it’s time to make a lot of schools happy and expand again. It’s only fair. If half the teams in college football can play in bowl games, why not 40 percent of the teams in college basketball?
The tournament could double in size without losing anything. Giving 128 teams a chance adds 64 games, but just one round to the tournament. That’s probably the ultimate number, but doubling the tournament in size is a big jump to make all at once. It’s probably better to work up to that many teams.
One way to do it is to add 16 teams for an 80-team field. Add one more round with the bottom 32 teams playing and the top 48 getting a bye. The games could be played on Monday and Tuesday of the tournament’s first week, with the 16 winners advancing to the second round. Or, the field could be increased to 96 teams, with the bottom 64 playing the first round and the 32 survivors joining the top 32 in the second round.
Again, games could be played on Monday and Tuesday of the first week of the tournament. And we’ll have no complaints about it — if you want in, you’ll have to be willing to suffer for the privilege.
If that’s not palatable, simply start the season a week earlier, move the conference tournaments up a week, and play March Madness over four weekends instead of three. Any way you do it, it’s not that big a deal to work out the logistics.
None of the teams added to the tournament would have a real chance of winning it. But that’s not the point. Even today, there aren’t more than 20 teams with even a whisper of a hope of getting to the Final Four and probably not half that number that could actually win the tournament. That’s the argument I’ve always fallen back on when teams complained about being left out — all they were begging for was the right to lose in the first round.
But I realize that for most schools, it’s not about winning. It’s about competing, about seeing if they can win just one game against a better team, about a 15 seed beating a two seed in the first round, about George Mason actually getting to the Final Four, about a Villanova beating a Georgetown, an N.C. State beating a Houston. It may not happen but once a generation, but that’s enough.
Beyond that, just getting to play one game means something to a lot of schools. And winning one game for a team from an obscure conference can be a big deal for school pride. For the students, there’s also the prospect of a road trip, and as one who spent my winters snowbound in the Midwest, I appreciate the value of March road trips.
And I’ve come to appreciate the value of just being in the tournament and testing yourself against the big boys. If 64 teams get that thrill, why not 80? 96? 128?
I can no longer think of a reason.