Apr 04, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Five weeks ago in this space, I offered the notion that March, and college basketball’s post-season, arrived with a large dose of uncertainty about it, that there was no super team, that the upcoming NCAA Tournament would surprise and confound us before it was done.
Well, I was wrong. It wasn’t surprising or confounding. It was downright shocking.
Okay, some people thought Connecticut would stay hot and that Kentucky would continue its late surge and get to Houston. But Butler again? Virginia Commonwealth? What is going on here?
The Rams’ run to the Final Four, after being one of the last four teams in the field and forced to play an extra round, drew particular attention, as much for the vehement criticism that followed Shaka Smart and company everywhere.
Right from the moment the selections were announced, commentators and columnists tripped over each other flogging VCU and griping that the likes of Virginia Tech and Colorado weren’t selected. They questioned the tournament committee’s intelligence, among other potshots.
And even after the Rams’ extraordinary performance in the Dance, these same “experts” lined up again to take one more whack, begging the NCAA to never, ever let the tournament expand again. Better to point fingers elsewhere than admit you were wrong about VCU.
All this has caused me to ponder the very nature of the tournament and its components – power conferences, mid-majors, and everything in between. Then I would ask the question – how big should the tournament be? Then, once that is figured, who should get in?
Maybe the 64-team model was perfect, but those days are gone. The current 68 is incomplete if the snubs are obvious. The much-discussed 96 doesn’t feel right, and though the late John Wooden would have loved it, inviting everyone into the field already happens, to some degree, with conference tournaments everywhere except the Ivy League.
Eventually, the number I settled on was 80 teams. Before you say it’s too much, though, let me show you how we would get to that number to insure that (1) the best possible field takes the floor and (2) no more class time is missed, which the NCAA constantly carps about. Here goes:
– Give the non-power conferences the option of discarding their tournaments (which don’t make much money anyway) and just send the regular-season champion. Then protect their place in the tournament, even if it’s a no. 17 through 20 seed.
– Big or small, every regular-season conference champion goes into the main field. Most likely, a Big East, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC champ would be a no. 1 to no. 8 seed anyway. That rewards the regular season.
– In all, 48 teams would be protected – the top eight seeds in each region, with all the major conference champions and top at-large teams, plus the champions of the 16 lowest-ranked conferences that, in tournaments past, never had better than a 13 seed.
– Then, take the 32 remaining teams, all of them at-large selections by the tournament committee, and play 16 games Tuesday and Wednesday, rather than the “First Four” we saw this year. Make them earn their place in the field. To save time and travel, use the same sites as the next two rounds Thursday through Sunday.
Under this system, VCU would not have to justify their place in the field. For all you Syracuse fans, the Orange, instead of getting snubbed in 2007 and ’08, would have made it, with a chance to play their way in. All possible snubs, from power conferences or mid-majors, would get their chance, too. And TBS, TNT and TruTV would be glad to telecast all of them as the appetizer for the main event, once it’s pared down to 64.
In short, it’s an old-fashioned compromise between those who say that having 64 teams is the ideal format (because of bracket pools, no doubt) and those, like Jim Boeheim, that insist on expansion because, among other things, coaches get canned for not making the Dance.
With nearly 350 teams in Division I basketball, even an expansion to 80 would still mean that less than 25 percent of the schools get in. That’s less than the NBA, NHL or NFL playoffs, about the same as Major League Baseball, and far less than the bloated college football system where more than half the Division I schools can flag a bowl bid, even if they’re 6-6.
Five years ago, George Mason broke new trails when they stunned Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on their way to the Final Four. Butler did even better, going to the big show twice, and VCU’s stunning rise further confirms that college basketball, at least in late March, is no longer confined to the big names. Deal with it.
The NCAA Tournament needs to deal with this changing reality, and make sure that the powers and dreamers alike have their chance at glory. Maybe, with an 80-team field, that could happen.