Don’t Change Perfection: Why College Basketball Should Not Expand the NCAA Tournament
Progress in sports is usually a good thing. Over the past decade, we have seen steps taken to prevent concussions in football, attempts by Major League Baseball to clean up steroids, and even goalies in hockey decided it might be a good idea to wear helmets. College basketball is no exception, as the sport has correctly expanded its NCAA Tournament due to an increase in Division One teams and the growing overall parity in the sport since the big dance’s inception in 1939. However, a recent push by the NCAA to further expand the tournament to as many as 96 teams is unnecessary and will likely ruin what is the top championship venue in all of American sports. Further expanding the tournament dilutes the overall talent level of the NCAA Tournament and renders the regular season and conference tournaments less important. The NCAA must ignore the temptation of a larger TV contract and more revenue and leave the current format as it is.
The selectiveness of the NCAA tournament is one of its biggest draws to both die-hard college basketball followers as well as casual fans. Thirty teams earn a bid to the tournament by winning their conference’s tournament (except the Ivy League, which has no post-season tournament and whose regular season champion goes to the dance) while the remaining 25 teams must earn an at-large bid. Thus, the tournament is comprised of two types of teams: Cinderella’s from smaller schools who earned their spot in dramatic fashion by winning a conference tournament and the strongest teams from the major conferences. Adding more teams to this equation will bring down the overall talent level of the tournament. The NCAA has discussed expanding the tournament up to 96 teams, which means the selection committee will be forced to include more small, "Cinderella" schools or middle-of-the-pack teams from major conferences. Everyone loves the underdog stories of George Mason crashing the Final Four as an 11 seed or the run Davidson made in 2008 to the Elite Eight before losing by two to eventual champion Kansas, but in reality these runs by the small schools are few and far between. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no 16 seed has defeated a 1 seed in the opening round, while a 15 seed has defeated a 2 seed only four times. There has only been one 12 seed make the Elite Eight and two 11 seeds have made the Final Four. Keep in mind these results were with teams good enough to make the field of 64 (now 65 with the inclusion of the play-in game between the two lowest 16 seeds). Adding another crop of teams even weaker will add more games but likely leads to the same conclusion: mostly top seeds surviving into the later rounds.
Before the start of post-season play teams try to achieve three goals: win its conference’s regular-season title, conference tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Currently, only 18% of the 347 Division One schools make the NCAA Tournament, making it one of the most selective post-seasons in sports. Due to its selectivity, every regular season game is important for schools to either make the field or to improve its seed. With more teams, seeding becomes less important and teams can afford to drop several more games a year. Expansion also provides a second chance for teams that did little in the regular season. Many "bubble" teams in the current format are teams that go around .500 or slightly better in their conference. Expansion could possibly allow major-conference teams with sub .500 records and average-at-best regular seasons make the field. Should we really allow a team that couldn’t get into the top tier of its league enter a single-elimination tournament with a chance to be crowned national champion? Every year we see the fans of small schools rush the court when their team wins its conference tournament title and enters the big dance. It is because earning a spot in the tournament means something. Expanding the field and adding more subpar teams waters down the overall meaning of the regular season, and what it means to get into the big dance overall.
Not only would the regular season be watered down and less meaningful, but the post-season tournaments would also lose significance, for both the mid-major and major conferences. While these tournaments often serve as an extra opportunity for tournament-bound teams to increase their seed, there have been many times that a team has had to earn its spot in the big dance solely from a conference tournament championship. Usually only one team will make the NCAA tournament from a mid-major conference: the team that earns the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. This gives the post-season tournament the ultimate importance in these leagues. Expanding the field will likely result in many of the second and sometimes third place teams in mid-major conferences receiving automatic bids. This eliminates the win-or-go-home aura that surrounds these mid-major post-season tournaments, making these events less important, less significant, and likely less watched by viewers. It also hurts the post-season tournaments of major conference teams as well. We’ve seen teams in the past such as Syracuse take advantage of their conference tournament by upsetting several higher-ranked teams to earn a spot in the big dance. With an expanded tournament, teams that have the necessary talent to win a conference tournament will likely already be in, making the post-season tournament merely an opportunity for teams headed to the NCAA Tournament an opportunity to improve their seed and get some extra practice for its players.
The current NCAA Tournament format rewards teams’ success in the regular season and conference tournaments with the opportunity to compete for a national championship. While expansion was necessary in the past due to an increasing number of competitive teams, the tournament has reached a perfect balance of good teams and selectivity in its current state. Adding more teams dilutes the overall level of competition in the tournament and makes the regular season and conference tournaments less important. Besides, who wants to fill out a 96 team bracket in their office pool? Maintaining the current tournament format ensures both die-hard and casual fans continue to watch, both in March and November.