The NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament, also known as "March Madness," is one of the sports world's greatest spectacles. This year's tournament tipped off over the weekend with the first two rounds, which once again provided no shortage of memorable moments.
The moments were undoubtedly led by ninth-seeded Northern Iowa's stunning upset of odds-on-favorite Kansas, the tournament No. 1 overall seed in the second round. Joining Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16 will be fellow lower-seeded upstarts Cornell (12-seed), Washington (11-seed) and St. Mary's (10-seed). These teams' impressive performances upstaged memorable first-round upsets by Ohio (14-seed), Murray State (13-seed), and Old Dominion (11-seed), and a near first round upset of second-seeded Villanova who needed overtime to escape 15th-seeded Robert Morris.
Unfortunately, the greedy powers that control the NCAA tournament are looking to expand the tournament from its current field of 65 teams. With the NCAA eligible to opt out of its current deal with CBS after the season, tournament expansion became a hot topic of debate this season.
The last time the tournament was expanded, the NCAA only expanded the field by one in 2001. However, the current talk of expansion hints at a major shift in the tournament field from 65 to 96 teams.
Ninety-six teams? Are they trying to ruin the madness that makes March so special? It is safe to say a couple of mediocre at-large teams sneak into the tournament every year anyway (i.e. Utah State, Florida State and UTEP this year), but a 96-team field would allow for an abundance of mediocre teams to make the field.
In a 96-team field, the top 32 teams would have a bye. So instead of compelling first round upsets like Ohio's triumph over Georgetown or Murray State's dramatic buzzer-beating victory of Vanderbilt, we might get to witness the impressiveness of an "upset" victory by 20th-seeeded Ohio over 14th-seeded Arizona State (who rightfully just missed making this year's tournament field as evidenced by the Sun Devils' home loss to Jacksonville in the first round of the NIT).
The tournament just wouldn't be the same without the potential for meaningful first round upsets. The driving force behind the expansion talk is, of course, money as the NCAA feels an extra round of NCAA tournament games would draw even more millions in broadcasting rights. However, the NCAA needs to ask themselves if they can really put a price on the moments that make the tournament so special.
I personally do not even know if I would watch the extra round of games. I do not watch the NCAA tournament to watch mediocre teams battle it out to see who'll get the opportunity to get killed in the next round of games against a rested, superior opponent. There is already a place for the next 32 best teams and their mediocre basketball. It is called the NIT.
Others in favor of expansion argue that expansion would allow for all the teams on the proverbial "bubble" the opportunity to play in the tournament. First of all, more often than not, the NCAA tournament selection committee gets it right and selects the best at-large teams. In 2007, many people argued against George Mason's inclusion in the tournament as one of the last at-large teams in the field. How did the Patriots do in that season's tournament? They beat perennial powers, UConn and UNC on the way to their first final four in school history as a 10-seed.
But most importantly, it is significant to note that the NCAA tournament field is essentially already expanded. Every team has a chance to make the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tournament and accordingly their league's automatic bid (only the Ivy League does not have a conference tournament). Essentially, the NCAA tournament really begins the week before with the conference tournaments. Prior to 1975, only each conference's tournament champion made the tournament which eliminated all debate about who should be in the tournament field.
The teams playing the best basketball at the end of the year all have a chance. Take a closer look at this year's three surprise sweet 16 participants: Cornell, Washington and St. Mary's. What do all three have in common? They each won their league's conference tournament (Ok, Cornell plays in the Ivy League, and they don't have a conference tournament, but the Big Red did lose only one league game all year). Entering their respective conference tournaments, both Washington and St. Mary's appeared to be sitting squarely on the wrong side of the bubble despite the fact that they both had played exceptionally well in February.
The Huskies and Gales fought their way into their league's title games with strong performances and both faced their conference's regular season champions in virtual do-or-die games. Both teams prevailed over California and Gonzaga, respectively, and have ridden the momentum from their strong conference tournament runs all the way to the Sweet 16.
On the other hand, I do not think minor NCAA tournament expansion would be a bad thing. Expand the field from 65 to 68 and have four opening round play-in games instead of one. That would let three more "bubble" teams earn at-large bids to the tournament and still protect the sanctity of the tournament.
But please NCAA, do not destroy the great spectacle you have already built. Every team already has a chance to make the tournament so the only real reason for expanding the field would be to make a few more bucks. But is any amount of money worth jeopardizing the memories the tournament already provides us? And how much less appealing does filling out a 96-team bracket sound?
The NCAA already robs us a football playoff. Don't rob us of the Madness too.