Expanding the NCAA Tournament Is A Very Bad Idea
Every year somebody somewhere makes the claim that the NCAA Tournament field should expand from its current number of 65. Bo Ryan jumpstarted this year's debate last week. It makes me wonder: why must people feel the need to tinker with a good thing?
Look, the NCAA Tournament and specifically the selection process is not perfect. But part of what makes college basketball great is the debating that goes on during Championship Week regarding who should get in and who should be out. Terms like "bubble teams" and "bid thieves" are part of a sports fan's lexicon exclusively because of college basketball. The first thing I was look for once the tournament field is set is who missed the cut. Every year there are about half dozen teams that have a strong enough résumé but didn't make the field. Usually there are one or two teams that have a strong case to get in but because of lack of quality wins or weak RPI that team is out.
So fine, expand the field to 68, meaning there would be four play-in games instead of one. Of course, there will still be bubble teams but again that's a great part of the 48 hours leading up to Selection Sunday. Desperation sets in and teams know they're playing of their tournament lives. Isn't that what everyone looks at? Every bracketologist out there will list the last four teams in and the last four teams out.
If you expand to 96 you are basically taking the field as it is now and adding virtually the entire NIT field. Did you watch the NIT last year? Chances are you didn't. Why not? Because those teams were for the most part unimpressive during the regular season. With so many automatic bids in college basketball the regular season carries little significance when compared to college football, where winning and winning big is necessary. Now, back to the NIT. Take a look at last year's bracket. Many considered St. Mary's and Florida among those "last four teams out." A small expansion of three teams would allow tourney-worthy teams like the Gaels and Gators to play in the NCAAs. But aside from those teams in a field of 96 you'd be including 17-15 Washington State, 16-14 Georgetown and 22-9 Tennessee-Martin. Pop quiz: what conference does Tennessee-Martin play in? How about Jacksonville? Niagara?
Last season Georgetown was 7-11 in conference play while Washington State was 8-10. With 65 teams you can bypass a lackluster season by winning the conference tournament. But if you don't get that automatic bid you'd better put up some impressive wins. With a 96 team field you can still have a lackluster season, have a losing conference record, not get an automatic bid yet still qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Why reward that kind of mediocrity? At least with an automatic bid you have to earn it by winning three games in three days and beat some of the best teams in your conference. All you need is a pulse to make the field of 96.
Again, the NCAA Tournament isn't perfect. But it is competitive and it keeps the regular season competitive. Expanding the field by nearly 50% waters down the bracket and makes the regular season virtually irrelevant. No longer would mid-major schools need to win 25 regular season games. No longer will a .500 conference record serve as a baseline for major programs. No longer will you need to make a deep run during Championship Week if you're on that bubble. Increasing the NCAA Tournament will decrease the excitement of March Madness.