I tell you what: for someone like me who has a great fear of what an expanded playoff would do to the greatest regular season in organized American sports, the last couple of weeks’ discussion on the possible expansion of the NCAA basketball tourney has done nothing to allay my concerns.
The overriding constant in the discussion is how perfect and wonderful the current 65-team format is – never mind what that’s done to a regular season that I heard Erik Kuselias refer to yesterday as “dead”.
For some people, like the New York Times’ George Vecsey, that’s a feature, not a bug.
… Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days when only conference champions and outstanding independents could qualify for the tournament. In 1974, North Carolina State beat Maryland, the fourth-rated team in the country, in the final of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which meant Maryland could not play in the nationals. The officials fixed that the next year by opening up the nationals.
Yep, the greatest basketball game of my lifetime (hey, don’t take my word for it) is part of the “bad old days”. Never mind the fact that one of the reasons that game was so incredible was because of the winner-take-all aspect of it.
Impressively, and without a shred of self-awareness about his argument, Vecsey manages to stop on a dime and do a 180-degree turn in the very next paragraph.
Nowadays, we have bloated conferences, with tournaments that mean little in the big picture. The Big East tournament has lost much of its pizazz in the last quarter-century because all the really good teams are going to the nationals anyway.
Gee, I wonder how that could have happened.
And now, the NCAA ponders about going from 65 to 96. Oh, look, here’s a familiar argument:
“There is no good basketball reason to expand, at least to expand dramatically,” countered Joe Lunardi, who projects the tournament field for ESPN and teaches an online course on the selection process. “This year’s number 66 is not going to be good enough to play for the national championship, so I would be hard-pressed to make a case for number 96. I don’t think the world would be any worse off if we don’t have 13 Big East teams in the tournament.”
So what? I mean, seriously, why is that relevant? For that matter, is this?
… Most fans and media members pan significant expansion because they feel it will cheapen the regular season, render many first-round NCAA tournament games unappealing and reward middling teams when they have little to no chance to win the national championship.
The coaches say no.
“Those fans are not from a school that was left out of the tournament last year,” said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, later adding, “You have teams in now that can’t win the tournament.”
But in any event, that’s not the most important consideration here. This is:
“You’ve got a situation where the people who are responsible for the television future of the tournament have an obligation to explore every different option out there to determine what’s in the best interest of the NCAA,” said SEC commissioner Mike Slive. “It would be irresponsible, given the magnitude of this issue, not to explore every conceivable option.”
Yeah, that Mike Slive. Is this starting to sink in yet? The commissioners and presidents don’t care about what the fans want, at least as long as it doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. And in the end, nobody is going to stop watching the Final Four because the NCAA adds another round of games to the tournament. That should tell you all you need to know about what’s coming down the pike for March Madness.
But it should also tell you, at least if you’ve got an open mind about it, that the same sort of fate is probable for a D-1 football playoff. It’ll be the same decision-makers faced with the same kind of decision. To believe that there’s something unique about college football that would make it immune from expansion is both ironic – since it’s expansion that will adversely affect the game’s most significantly unique attribute, the regular season – and as crazy as Vecsey’s argument. I think I’ll pass, thanks.
UPDATE: Michael Elkon shares some thoughts on more stupid media tricks.