No Need to Squeeze in Any More

To be honest, I'm disappointed. As the NCAA tournaments roll into the regional rounds, there's a foggy feeling hovering over the events. Oh, it's not the games. They've been fantastic, as usual.

For some, last weekend was the perfect setup for their tourney viewing pleasure. There were enough 1st round upsets to provide intrigue. Then, the brighter lights took over to create anticipation for Sweet 16 showdowns. (Personally, I would have preferred a few more big numbers at this point.)

The pall over this most joyous of events has come off the court. There's talk of expanding the tourney fields from 68 to a participant count that will be in the 70s (either 72 or 76). And for some advocates of the expansion, it's a prime opportunity to force feed more of their programs into the bracket.

The loudest voice so far has been SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. Really, that should be expected. Sankey's recent efforts to create auto-bids for his league in the ever-ballooning football playoff only augments his hoops stance. To him, mid-major schools are a nagging and unnecessary speed bump to his goal of "Czar to All Collegiate Athletics" (yes, I'm projecting, but who isn't at this point). The recent comments regarding a bigger tourney field have been taken in a similar context to the football discussions, whether he meant them to be or not. And that's caused some flack to head his way after the conference he leads showed up small the first two rounds of this event.

There usually aren't many things in sports that make me clamor for change. If new processes come along, I believe I've given them a chance to grow into their own. That hasn't happened much regarding the NCAA bracket. By the time I was consistently following college hoops, the tourney field was set at 64 teams. We've seen slight alterations since 1985, but the effect has been fairy minimal. The current field allows a fantastic marriage between the subtle, the overwhelming, the sublime, and the heartache. So many smaller schools getting the chance to play the behemoths. And even though that doesn't even the playing field, it does open up the opportunities.

Sports are filled with stars and stories. We love watching our favorite players compete on grand stages. The problem when you always stargaze, however, is that you suppress the chance for new talent to grow. The blue blood programs will always be there. The Power programs (even Vanderbilt, Rutgers, DePaul, etc.) will always be there. The "mids" and "smalls" of D-I hoops aren't so lucky. Now, the consequences won't be as severe as St. Francis of Brooklyn (who decided to drop athletics altogether). But most programs don't have the consistency of Gonzaga or Colgate. They don't even find that upward mobility current that Butler grooved itself into a dozen (or so) years back. For most non-Power teams, a cycle of sporadic league greatness is more reasonable.

For my money, the basketball tournaments (both D-I men and women) are the best postseason examples of an egalitarian team sports state. The talent disparity is low enough that smaller schools can make a run of upsets over established names. The tension is great enough that you need to be on top of your situation (note that I'm not saying top of your game) six consecutive times. The urgency is palpable enough the one shot could sink an immaculate season. There's no need to truly mess with that for the sake of bigger name "quality."

These last two men's cycles have been unorthodox. Three Final Four debutantes crashed last year's party. This year, there was an unprecedented number of bid-stealing conference champs. But it all comes around in the end. Last year's national title winner lifted its fifth trophy in the last quarter-century. This year's last 16 contenders may mark the most stacked finish since the 1989 edition (All four 1- & 2-seeds, three 3s, two 4s, two 5s, and an 11). That's the other beauty of the tournament. Tides shift, and each rendition has its own soundtrack.

Change is inevitable in every sport we consume. I just hope, for the sake of the college hoops fanatic, that one thing can stubbornly stay for a while longer.

Comments and Conversation

March 30, 2024

Anthony Brancato:

But shouldn’t pure talent matter? You know and I know that if Seton Hall and Wagner had played each other 100 times this season on a neutral court (Madison Square Garden?), Seton Hall would clearly have won all 100 meetings.

And in case you need to be reminded, the NCAA has owned the NIT - lock, stock, and two smoking barrels - since 2005. If that’s not a blatant violation of antitrust laws, then I don’t know what is.

So the NCAA and the NIT need to be merged, resulting in a single, 96-team tournament. Then the best 96 teams in the country will actually participate inn the NCAAs.

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