NCAA Expansion: All the wrong reasons

With the focus on the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament, now is the perfect time to dismiss all the purported reasons why expanding March Madness to upwards of 96 teams is a good idea.

It would give more kids the opportunity of a lifetime. You see all the players from the small schools in the small conferences celebrating their chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Why would you want to deny this to even more young kids who aren’t going to play in NBA? This is the highlight of their basketball career.

Granted, the NCAA tournament is a huge deal and for many student-athletes it is the pinnacle of their athletic career, however this is not an actual reason to expand the tournament. If you say more kids should get the chance, why not all of the kids? Why should every player and every team not have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament? Why stop at 96, just add all 347 teams and be done with it.

The absurdity of that should demonstrate the uselessness of that line of reasoning. Giving players that “moment” is a lofty goal, but playing in the national championship tournament is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn your way in and that is the way it should be.

But even more convincingly, virtually every team in the NCAA has the opportunity to participate in March Madness. Every conference, except the Ivy League, has a conference championship tournament. Any team in the conference can win their tournament and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. So right now, no team (unless you want to argue those in the Ivy League) is without the opportunity to win a few games against similar sized schools and play in the NCAA tournament.

Expansion would add to the madness. Just think how much more fun it would be with even more games, more buzzer beaters, more upsets – more madness.

In theory, sure that’s a great idea. In reality, it doesn’t work out that way. It’s just like anything else, the more there is the smaller the return on investment is. Eating a bowl of ice cream is great. Eating 50 bowls of ice cream … not so great.

Sure if we added more teams there would be more games and more chances of buzzer beaters, however the competition would be inferior. It’s exciting when we see a small school like Northern Iowa take out a heavyweight like Kansas. How exciting is it to see a small school like Northern Iowa take out a middle (or bottom) of the pack school like NC State, Nebraska or Seton Hall. Not quite the same ring to it.

Expansion would dilute the product and make many of the games unwatchable. Sure it would increase the number of good games, but it would do the same for the bad games. Right now, there are only a few games that no one really wants to see. Expand it and you expand those as well.

There are not enough teams from smaller conferences in the NCAA tournament. Think about how fun it is to see Northern Iowa and Cornell make runs. Why not add more of those fun stories?

Again, sounds decent in theory, but in practice it would not turn out so well. If you add the 32-team NIT tournament, which is essentially what the NCAA wants to do, you would add some additional mid-major and smaller schools to the mix. However, you would be adding even more mediocre (at best) power conference schools. For every Jacksonville, Kent State and Coastal Carolina included, there would be an underachieving UNC, UConn and Illinois.

If you look at this year’s NIT field, 20 of the 32 teams are from conferences that received multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. Several other teams are from conferences that often receive multiple bids, just not this year. Expansion would disproportionately reward mediocrity in major conferences instead of achievement in smaller conferences.

Ultimately, the NCAA itself, through the selection committee, chooses who makes the NCAA tournament. If they want more mid-majors in the tournament, pick them and put them in.

This would include regular season conference champions as automatic bids. Think of how big a shame it is when a team plays well and dominates their conference all year long, but at the conference tournament their star player catches the flu and they lose, ending any hope they had of making the NCAA tournament.

It is sad for schools that win their regular season, but for whatever reason stumble in their postseason conference tournament. I feel for them, but that is the way their conference operates. No one requires those conference tournaments. The Ivy League doesn’t have one. Many have argued the tournaments should be done away with.

But regardless, that is the way the system is set up. The NCAA cannot complain about not rewarding regular season champions, when they established that conference tournament champions are the ones who get the automatic bid. If they wanted to change that fact, they could.

In football, just under 57% of the schools fielding NCAA Division IA teams play in the postseason. In NCAA basketball, less than 19% get the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. It’s only fair that more teams have the opportunity to play in the postseason. Football players enjoy the opportunity bowls present to them and over half get to participate. Shouldn’t basketball have the same thing?

This has to be my favorite argument in favor of expanding the tournament. You seriously want to compare the BCS bowl system favorable to the NCAA tournament? Is it really a compelling argument to point to the fatally flawed system in football and say, “We should be more like that!”

Yes, over half the teams in football play in the postseason and virtually everyone not personally vested in the system believes it is way too many. There are wretched bowl games that no one watches pitting teams that have no business playing in the postseason.

While it is true that only 19% of the basketball teams play in the NCAA tournament, the number jumps to over 37% when you include the three other postseason tournaments (NIT, CBI and CIT). If you wanted to get closer to 50%, expand those.

But back to the football analogy. As I said, currently 19% of the NCAA basketball teams have a chance to play for the national championship, including at least one school from every conference in the nation. In football, only 2 of the 120 have the opportunity to play for a national title. Ask Boise State and TCU how far being undefeated gets you if you are not in one of the power conferences.

Even if you expanded it to schools playing in any of the big money BCS bowls, you only have just over 8% playing in one of those bowls. Only 4 teams not from the BCS conferences or named Notre Dame on 6 occasions have even played in one of those bowl games. They are a combined 4-2 (.500) in those games. That’s a better winning percentage than the ACC (.167), Big Ten (.476) and the Big 12 (.438). It’s the same as the Big East. If you look at it by conference instead of overall non-BCS schools, they do even better with the Mountain West and the WAC both at .667. That percentage is behind only the SEC (.737). So even though those schools do well, they still don’t get a chance to play for the national title. Three conferences have never had a school play in the BCS bowls, much less the national title game. I repeat, every conference in the nation has at least one representative in the NCAA tournament and, at least theoretically, has the chance to win the national title. Football cannot make that argument.

To argue that the bowl mess is better than the NCAA tournament is ludicrous on so many levels. The NCAA tournament allows more teams, which represents every conference, the opportunity to compete on the court for the national championship. Kentucky and Duke have to win just as many games as East Tennessee State and Lehigh to win the national title. In the 13 years since the BCS was created 12 schools, all from the 6 power conferences, have claimed the 26 spots in the national championship game. In the past 7 Final Fours, 20 different schools from 8 conferences, the power six plus Conference USA and the Colonial, have claimed the 28 spots. Which one actually allows more teams from more conferences the opportunity to play for a national title?

The real reason the NCAA wants to expand: Money. They want to sell CBS an even larger slate of games and make even more money off of their cash cow. The problem is that in trying to ride their cash cow, the NCAA may be killing the golden goose. In diluting their product, the NCAA runs the risk of alienating part of the audience. Many people could begin to view the opening rounds of the tournament as they do the early bowl games – avoidable.

The real reason coaches and school administrations want to expand: Job security. They believe that fans measure success based on NCAA tournament trips and the more there are, the better chance they have to get one and keep their jobs. The problem with this is that a short stay in the NCAA tourney will be like one of the lower bowl games – worthless. Could Jim Tressel at Ohio State keep his job if he led his Buckeyes to the Humanitarian Bowl for a few years in a row? Probably not.

My solution: If you want to expand, then add a “play-in” game to each region of the bracket, making the total number of teams in the NCAA tournament 68. However instead of having two small schools like Winthrop and Arkansas Pine-Bluff playing for the right to be a 16 seed and get crushed by a 1 seed like Duke, have the last eight at-large teams play for something like an 8 seed.

That would mean having the current last five teams in the field in addition to the first three teams left out. This year’s play-in round would have most likely featured Florida, Missouri, Minnesota, UTEP and Utah State from the current field, plus Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and Illinois from the NIT. Would four games with those 8 teams not be more compelling and interesting than two unknown small conference schools playing for a 16 seed.

In addition to that change, add stipulations to the NIT, CBI and CIT to make them more interesting. Have the winner of this year’s NIT receive an automatic bid to next year’s NCAA tournament. It gives them a lot more to play for. If they play well enough next season and they don’t need it then fine, but it provides more incentive for the players and interest for the fans. Give the winners of the CBI and CIT automatic bids into the NIT tournament. Again, if they don’t need it, great, but it provides additional motivation.

The NCAA tournament is the greatest event in sports. Fans should be open to tweaking in attempts to make it even better. However, no one should be open to a complete overhaul of it simply to give the NCAA more money and calm the nerves of underachieving coaches.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.