The 2010 men's championship has been one the most exciting and competitive basketball tournaments ever. I hope you enjoyed it, because it will be the last time. The NCAA is determined to ruin the best thing it ever created.
As we have known for some time, the NCAA will expand the men's tournament to include 96 teams, probably next year. This is a terrible idea. Most right thinking people whose job does not depend on being able to say they led a team to the Big Dance agree that its a terrible idea. "Perfect" is the word most used to describe the current format. Yet, it will still change for two reasons—the NCAA wants more money and schools and coaches want to be able to say they made the tournament more often. (And thus make more money.) If that means cheapening the very idea of what it means to make the tournament while simultaneously ruining the level of play, so be it.
Reason One: "Something awesome" plus "more" always equals "something more awesome."
The dirty secret of the 64-team tournament is that it is already too big. No seed lower (lower meaning weaker) than an eight has ever won it. This means that, theoretically, the field could have stayed at 32 this entire time and the ultimate end result would have remained unchanged. Most of the teams in the field have no shot to win it all, but that's not the point. The point is getting in. That will suddenly be much less impressive.
Reason Two: The first two days are the most exciting. This just turns those two days into four days, DOUBLING your excitement.
Everyone agrees that the play-in game sucks, right? Well, what if we had 32 play-in games? Neat! And remember all those upsets? Forget about that. A top-8 seed can't lose in the first two days. What drama! (A 12-seed losing to a 21 might still be cool, I guess?) I mean, a 16-seed (soon to be a 24) has never beaten a #1. So why are we still allowing players the chance to realize that tantalizing dream of hoops immortality, when we could just have Florida State knock them out on the first day?
And let's face it, those top eight teams probably won't lose their second game either, because we've just given these teams that are already favored more rest, a chance to scout their future opponent live in a must-win game, two extra days of preparation for that opponent, and best of all ... only two days for the opponent to prepare for them. (Shouldn't have wasted so much time focusing on that 12-seed, huh?) You know how the difference between the 8 and 9 seed is basically a coin flip between two pretty equal teams that were almost impossible to differentiate? Now that previously harmless decision means everything. Good luck!
And no breaks for anyone. Under the proposed system, a team without a bye would have to win five games in ten days to reach the Final Four. The only thing doubling are the odds that have been stacked against the underdogs.
Reason Three: The percentage of Division I teams that make the postseason tournament (19%) is too small.
You know what the number one complaint of every other league's postseason tournament is? Too many teams get in. Half the NHL and NBA advance. The baseball Wild Card is stupid. Everyone goes to a bowl game. It's supposed to be hard to go to the postseason. That's the whole point of having one.
Whose ridiculous idea was it to let 340 teams into Division I in the first place? Most only joined on the faint, misguided hope that they might make an NCAA tournament someday. Why encourage more terrible athletic departments to waste alumni dollars on the same mistake?
Reason Four: A lot of "good" teams have "good" seasons that deserve to be rewarded with an invitation.
Only a coach would make this lame argument, but let's look at one of the teams that would be rewarded by a larger field. Just to take one random example ... North Carolina. Their season was so "good" their own coach compared it to a natural disaster. A catastrophe. Seeing your loved ones crushed under the rubble of your own home would have been preferable to watching that team play basketball. This is a team that deserves further recognition? And they were second-best of those terrible teams! Thirty other teams that are worse than the Tar Heels will be rewarded for their lackluster effort?
Oh, and if the success or failure of a program is gauged by tournament appearances, how stupid are you going to look when you can't even get into a 96-team field? And if you do manage to get over that extremely low limbo stick, don't think the boosters won't notice that you never seem to get out of the watered-down first round. No one's job will be saved by this.
Reason Five: Money.
I'm not an economist or ad buying person, but is it possible that CBS is overestimating the eagerness of today's media companies to lock themselves into 14-year, multi-billion-dollar financial commitments?
Eh, who am I kidding? TV networks love throwing money away.
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Believe it or not, I am one of the few people who generally defends the NCAA. I think amateurism is still important and respect the organization's efforts to protect that. (However feeble and occasionally confused those efforts can be.) But this is such a blatant, ill-advised cash grab that it makes it almost impossible to defend them on anything else. Expanding the tournament would reward mediocrity, weaken the level of competition, spit in the face of academics, and spoil the symmetry of what is universally regarded as one of the best events in all of sport. And they can't even convincingly lie about it.
Worst of all, it would simply be unfair. It stacks the deck for the favorites. The most beautiful part of the 64-team field is how it levels the court between the big and the small, the weak and the strong. It has somehow found the sweet spot where the best teams will rise above, yet worst can usually offer a proper challenge. But a 96-team format doesn't want Goliath to even know that David exists. A 128-team field would actually be a better option—although it would be infinitely more tedious—but the NCAA prefers the worst of all worlds.
Will exciting games still happen? Of course they will. And we'll still watch, because that's what we do. But college basketball will never be as fun as it is right now. The NCAA Tournament really is close to perfect. (It'd be much closer without the play-in game.) Unfortunately, this change will happen and it will leave March Madness worse off because of it. It certainly cannot improve it.