For the last third of my life, I haven't contributed a damn thing to our society or the United States economy on the third Thursday of March. Sure, I've filled the pockets of a few offshore betting sites, but many times I don't shower and choose to inhale only Pabst Blue Ribbon and Cheez-its. That's because, as you probably know, the third Thursday of every March that is the day one of the NCAA Tournament. It's the greatest day of the year for some, an opportunity for many others to call-in a fabricated upper-respiratory infection, and has been reported to cost this country somewhere in the billions of dollars because TPS reports appear as unsightly as Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day in comparison to the upstart 13 seed ready to down a Big East powerhouse.
But the idea of expanding the tournament to 96-teams would, in essence, kill that feeling of elation you get on day one when games that matter replace soap operas and tired game shows. The initial report came out earlier this week from Sports By Brooks, citing ESPN and important people at a "powerhouse NCAA basketball school" that bracket expansion - predicated on the opportunity for more revenue - was all but done. I probably sound naïve here, but if that's what the NCAA and whoever has the exclusive broadcasting rights want to do, then they aren't interested in the regular season. They're simply looking to corral the casual fan into thinking more is better. A 96-team playoff will cripple a sport that boasts an exemplary playoff system, one that allows for inclusion of slightly above average teams capable of making waves, but not over extending invitations to teams that garnered little national attention through the winter.
Consider: Seton Hall, South Carolina, Tulsa, Northwestern, Washington, Mississippi St., Nevada, Harvard, Oakland, Kent St. and Virginia Tech currently sit ranked 60-69 in the RPI rankings, respectively. You can bet that if each team continues to play at a similar win/loss rate for the next five weeks, and do not win their conference tournament, three to five of these squads will receive a tournament bid and nearly all of them will sit on pins and needles wondering if their resume is adequate. Expand the bracket by 31, and middling programs like Boston College, Alabama, Providence and Washington St. all are fighting for spots, but the CBS-generated drama will seem contrived. This egalitarian-type approach might sound nice to some but, come on, those teams suck. I'd rather punch the clock for nine hours than watch Joe frieken Trapani try and will the Eagles to an unimportant victory at two in the afternoon.
The most disconcerting thing here is that the NCAA is considering following in the footsteps of the NBA (refusing to scale back a two-month playoff format that follows an 82-game season) and the NFL (looking to capitalize on the record television ratings by adding two games to the regular season). More might not be better. It may just water down.
Naturally, many of the pundits are weighing-in. Jay Bilas, known for speaking his mind and not worrying about the possible backlash, surprisingly sat on fairly middle-ground when asked about the possibility of expansion, calling the tournament "impossible to screw up." Conversely, USA Today's sports media columnist Michael Hiestand, sees it as the dilution of a fine product, adding:
"Diminishing the Big Dance and popping debates about who's on the bubble would inevitably devalue college basketball's regular-season, conference tournaments and its NCAA selection show...What would the NCAA get in return? Probably lots of new games of little interest to casual fans nationally - thus lots of low ratings."
Hiestand nails it. Sixty-five teams is great, but it's still a sizable amount. While the NCAA and a to-be-determined TV network(s) will still get richer with more opportunities to rake in dollars through advertising, concessions and apparel, they'll get hit with poor television ratings, while the wise ones will know that we're being robbed.