— Watching the final minutes of Houston’s 81-73 victory over UTEP in the Conference-USA tournament championship game, it was almost more fun to observe those televised crowd shots than the action on the court. Did you see the joy on the faces of the Houston fans? Did you see that big smile from coach Tom Penders and the jubilation expressed by his wife? Did you see the way the Cougars players celebrated?
That’s the NCAA tournament, folks. That’s the essence of a perfect playoff concept, all the emotion that builds competing to become part of a 65-team field, and reinforcement of the fact — yes, fact — that the tournament is open to all Division I teams through the conference tournaments.
Expansion? Expansion would ruin the whole thing. Please, please, please. Let’s put an end to all of this expansion talk.
Houston, home of Guy Lewis and Phi Slama Jama, is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992. Argue, if you wish, that the Cougars do not deserve a berth this season because of their 19-15 record. Argue that they took a spot away from Virginia Tech or Illinois or Mississippi State.
But that’s not how March Madness works, and I happen to love March Madness exactly the way it is.
The Cougars had an opportunity, and they took advantage of it. Let them enjoy their chance to dance. No one denied Virginia Tech, Illinois or Mississippi State that same opportunity. It was there, and all three fell short.
I have written this many times over the years, but I’m glad to state my case again. What we have is the coolest, purest, most perfect system of all. We get all worked up over the automatic bids that go with conference tournaments. We speculate for weeks about the at-large bids. Who’s in, who’s out and who is on the bubble. We gather around the television on Selection Sunday with the same anticipation of the greatest payout in lottery history, then we fill out our brackets as the field is announced.
That is followed by three weeks of great drama. After more than 30 years of covering the tournament, that first weekend still boggles my mind. We start Thursday with 64 teams, and by Sunday we are down to the Sweet 16. It’s simply amazing and efficient the way that happens. The regional finals are so dramatic, and a week later we have our Final Four. In my book, Final Four Saturday is the single most exciting day on the sports calendar. And then Monday night, we have a true championship game.
With a field of 96 teams, seemingly the most popular model for expansion, who knows if Houston would have been on the bubble? It’s actually hard to put your arms around the exact resume that will be needed for at-large bid when the tournament blows up. But Houston earned its way in this season. Isn’t that really more rewarding in the long run?
And I can tell you this much: There were barely 65 teams worthy of selection for this year’s tournament. How in the world would the committee have found 96 teams?
The NCAA tournament selection committee supposedly took an exhaustive look at expansion four years ago. From that point on, committee chairmen and committee members have told us the tournament is just fine. Even under the intense heat and scrutiny in 2007, after Syracuse was left out of the field, we were told there would be no expansion.
Expansion talk right now is that it is tied to TV revenue. The NCAA has been a partner with CBS for as long as most fans can remember — 1982 to be exact. The key to that relationship is the 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS. But the NCAA can opt out after the eighth year and would need to give CBS advance notice by this summer.
More games equals higher rights fees. More games leads to more scheduling windows, more advertising and more revenue. More, more, more, until finally there is more money. And that’s what it is all about. NCAA officials say it’s not. I know these are tough economic times. I know basketball revenue is used to fund most other athletic programs, and I know there are Title IX concerns. Again, we are talking money and an enormous burden is being placed on men’s basketball.
The coaches support expansion, too. Their justification is simple. Job security. Make the NCAA tournament and keep your job. More tournament spots, more job security and more raises. Again, it comes back to money.
But what about the student-athlete? That’s the term the NCAA forces down our throat at this time of the year. I hear the basketball committee talking about making this the best experience for the student-athletes, yet few people talk about how much class time they are missing. In football, where we don’t have a real championship format, one of the objections to a playoff is adding games and taking players away from classes — and those games could be played during semester break.
The NCAA has an academic fraud crisis on its hands, and it is getting swept under the carpet. Basketball players are missing classes. At the big-time programs, one-and-done players as well as others leaving early for the NBA simply stop going to class in the second semester. It’s the dirty little secret no one wants to address.
No one has explained to me how that academic situation will improve with an expanded tournament. Hopefully, someone within the walls of the NCAA fortress is giving it some thought.
I know college basketball hasn’t been part of true amateur sports for a very long time. But what kind of message are we sending if we simply expand without a national debate about the problems that already exist?
Is the money that important?