Hypocrisy. Greed. Arrogance. With recent events making the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 96 teams likely, it is clear that the National Collegiate Athletic Association possesses those three qualities by the armful.
The NCAA tournament is the most widely-appealing playoff system in the United States of America. A mock scientific field called “bracketology” has evolved in which experts diagnose the tournament’s field months before it even occurs. Literally millions of Americans around the country participate in office pools for this event, picking the teams that they think will win. And fans gather around their TV sets (or in more recent years around the internet’s March Madness on Demand) to watch the games even as many take place on Thursday and Friday in the middle of work. The term “March Madness” has even become a widely understood phenomenon used to describe the hysteria surrounding the tournament. Now, thanks to the NCAA’s desire to fill its own wallet, the tournament could lose much of its mystique.
There are 347 division one college basketball teams. Currently 65 of them reach the NCAA tournament. That is 18.7%, or approximately one fifth of all division one teams. If the tournament contained 96 teams, that would be 27.7%, more than one quarter of all teams. That is a huge difference. Here are some of the changes that would result from such a drastic increase in tournament teams.
1) Bid domination by large conferences
This year, the Big East Conference had eight of its sixteen teams in the tournament field. That is the most ever! They deserved those bids, because their conference was the best in America from top to bottom. However, if the tournament had included 96 teams this year, they likely would have had 13 bids! That is because five of their eight remaining teams ended up in the NIT, widely considered the 2nd-best postseason tournament, as it attempts to include the best 32 teams that did not make the NCAA tournament. Is there any fairness in granting a team that finished 12th in its own conference a bid in the playoffs. That would be like giving out 26 spots in the NFL or NBA playoffs. It would be truly ridiculous. Additionally, eight of the ACC’s twelve teams would have been in. Were teams like South Florida and NC State truly compelling enough this year to warrant NCAA consideration?
2) Complete elimination of interest in the NIT
The NIT is not very popular. No one denies it. However, teams that win an NIT championship are generally solid teams that were not quite good enough for the NCAA tournament. Under the current format, that would make them top 75 teams. Pretty good, but not great. If the NCAA tournament expanded to 96 teams, the NIT would lose any chance it had at maintaining fan interest. Who wants to watch the nation’s 99th-best team play the nation’s 126th-best team in a first round match-up (this year, according to RPI rankings, that would have been Troy vs. Oral Roberts). Maybe crazies like me that can’t get enough of college basketball…but not many others. And once again, the remaining teams from large conferences that did not garner bids in the NCAA tournament would likely swallow up bids in the NIT, making it possible for almost every major-conference team to play in the postseason each year. If that’s not de-valuing the regular season, I don’t know what is. For example, all 12 of the ACC’s teams ended the season with an RPI rating of 127 or better. As the NIT is a 32-team tournament, 96 NCAA bids available +32 NIT bids available=128 total postseason bids available. Thus, it is likely that all 12 teams from the ACC would play in the either the NCAA tournament or the NIT in some years. Miami, a team that finished last in that conference with a 4-12 record, would likely be in the NIT. This year, the ACC was not even the nation’s best conference! Using just the RPI, the major conferences would have the following number of bids in the two biggest postseason tournaments.
ACC – 12/12, 100%
Big Twelve- 11/12, 91.7%
Big East – 14/16, 87.5%
SEC – 9/12, 75%
Big Ten – 7/11, 63.6%
Pac Ten – 5/10, 50%
All together, 79.5% of big-six conference teams would have played in one of the top two postseason tournaments this year. Is that fair to the little guy? Also, is it fair that in what could be the Pac Ten’s worst season of all-time they still manage to have half of their teams playing in the NCAA or NIT tournaments? Not in my book.
3) Elimination of Academic Considerations
It is widely understood that the name “student-athlete” is a bit of a misnomer for the biggest NCAA programs. However, most athletes playing college basketball are not going to be going pro, so they should be encouraged to attempt to put a bit of effort into academics. Noted writer John Feinstein made the insight that, under the proposed expansion system of the NCAA tournament, any team making the sweet sixteen would miss an entire week of classes straight. This would not bother me too much, except for the fact that the NCAA has decided not to pursue a football playoff because of the possibility of missed classes. They are using completely contradictory arguments to make important decisions, and as a result, they magically make a ton more money. Coincidence?
Basically, by going through with the proposed expansion idea, the NCAA as a body would be diluting the talent in its own postseason tournament and one other (the NIT). Plus, it would hurt its own cause, that of upholding the “student-athlete” charade, by requiring 16 schools to miss an entire week of classes. At least they’re rolling in the Benjamins, though. That’s what really matters, right?