Tom warned you I might write about sports. I try not to present sports as news (who beat whom – unless its that SAINTS beat COLTS thing or something like that :)) but rather the policy and decision-making behind sports.
Several writers have discussed the proposed expansion of the NCAA tourney to 96 teams. Syracuse’s coach Jim Boeheim is an avid supporter (I don’t think he’ll have to worry this year, even though ‘Cuse was left out one year in a very controversial move, since they are ranked number 1 right now) and two at SI, Florida coach Billy Donovan and SI writer George Dohrman, respectively, took the pro and con position on it. Terence Moore at Fanhouse says the tourney will be diluted by too many teams. Dohrman basically agrees and suggests that this is led by the NCAA’s move to increase revenues. Coach Donovan argues it will help coaches and give more players the honor of playing in the NCAAs. But neither discussed what I feel is the compelling reason why SOME expansion (perhaps not to 96 teams necessary) is desirable and even necessary. It is the continuing mistreatment of the smaller conferences by the tournament.
There are 32 Division I basketball conferences in the nation. Each one but the Ivy League has a tournament ever year. That conference tourney winner gets the automatic bid to the NCAAs. No matter how humble your league is, it gets one ticket to the Big Dance. But only about ten conferences get more than one bid. Even if the highest seeded team wins the conference tournament, the best team stays home. The MAAC conference is a good example where Siena is the clear best team but if they fall short in the conference tourney, they must go to the NIT. (The NIT takes all regular season winners not selected by the NCAAs.) The NCAA also has this odious “play-in” game that further dilutes the conferences in that two conference winners have to play in for the right to be in the field of 64.
Yes, the NCAA should expand the field. I am not sure of the 96 number but the tournament should take BOTH the regular season and tournament winner in all 32 conferences and also last year’s winner and the NIT winner if they post a 500 or better regular season. I liked the idea that Andy Glockner at SI had (I said they had great writers!) to have the first round losers go to the NIT. I’m not sure teams from major conferences with say 5-9 league records should be admitted to the NCAAs.
Some might object, saying that the smaller conferences are not strong enough for two teams. I agree. However, just like each state has at least three electoral votes and has a stake in the election for President, each conference ought to have it’s best team in the tournament. I would favor only the REGULAR SEASON winners (each conference can resolve tiebreakers to find a champion for NCAA purposes) getting automatic bids over the present system. If any conference does not admit ALL their teams to the conference tournament (The Big East used to not allow their highest seeded teams in its tournament; just this year it has changed) they should not get an automatic bid. All these reforms apply to the women’s Big Dance.
Sports is an area where there is very little opportunity for public opinion. Hence, the procedures must be fair. The NCAA tournament is a great but broken institution. Expansion can correct much of what is wrong.