For sports fans, February is a brutal month. After the all-important first Sunday, most fans placate their appetite for sports by watching mediocre mid-season NBA games and perhaps a couple frames of the NHL (yes, it is still around). Rabid baseball fans count down the days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, but who can blame them? The college basketball regular season, intended to be the saving grace of a month of sports boredom, is as impotent as the rest year after year. Who cares? Other than the rare matchup between top-ten teams, watching regular season college basketball is just boring for the average fan—there is nothing at stake. We are all just waiting until March.
Yet at this time next year, your casual college basketball fan might care even less about the sport. There are multiple outlets rumoring and reporting that the NCAA will opt out of its current eleven-year, $6 billion television contract with CBS, which has three years remaining. As soon as 2011, March Madness will get crazier—or sillier.
The pervading theory is that the NCAA plans to expand its annual invitational from 65 teams to either 68 or 96. Expanding to 68 would simply amount the recent media frenzy to a lot of crying over spilt milk, but an expansion of 31 teams would make a boring regular season all but meaningless.
I am not here to beg the NCAA not to expand, because it will. Where there is money, the NCAA will follow—it always has. Expansion is not unprecedented. Beginning with just eight teams in the early part of the century, the tournament has added seeds seven times, including its last move from 64 to 65 teams in 2001. And while it’s possible I would have been against many of the earlier changes at the time, expanding now seems especially egregious. Let me make my case (in case the idea of the 96-team bracket is somehow exciting to you).
1. Sure, there are more teams now. (When the bracket expanded to 64 in 1985, there were 282 Division I basketball programs. Now there are 347.) But more teams doesn’t translate to better basketball. With diluted talent and the NBA draft’s influence on top-tier players, there are bound to be some less-than-exciting teams in an expanded format. And watching bad basketball is painful. Sixty-five teams is certainly sufficient to decide a champion.
2. A bigger bracket will lead to the death of the Cinderella. More madness doesn’t equal a better event. In fact, it probably would be less crazy. With the majority of the extra 31 teams likely coming from major conference schools, fewer mid-major and small-conference schools will make it to the field of 64 and beyond.
3. The regular season will be worthless. If the 96-team field were in place this year, mediocre teams such as South Carolina (12-10) would be all but shoe-ins. The Gamecocks are 5-5 in the SEC and have lost to Wofford and Miami. Even Boston College (12-13 and 3-8 in the ACC) would have an argument. Aside from their sub-.500 record and pitiful conference tally, the Eagles have lost at home to Maine and Harvard and sit in the bottom quarter of their conference.
4. Non-Conference schedules, especially of teams in the major conferences, would resemble the non-conference schedules of SEC football teams. With little reason to prove yourself, why risk another potential addition to the loss column? Teams will schedule cupcakes to make their records look better and just hope to stay afloat in the conferences because that’s all it will take to make a field of 96.
5. The argument that more teams should be “included” in the Dance for the sake of the kids is just nonsense. The NCAA tournament is not, and will never be about the players. It’s about money and the schools that get the money. Like the problems of “No Child Left Behind,” we cannot always reward mediocrity, and an expanded bracket will only diminish the accomplishment of qualifying in the first place. The college bowl system might include nearly half of its teams, but that doesn’t mean the NCAA needs the same system for basketball. Besides, I don’t think Central Michigan or Troy had any illusions that they were playing for the national title when they squared off in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Alabama—even if it was a January Bowl.
6. Fans already have enough trouble picking the 7 v. 10 and 8 v. 9 games. With the regular season so unimportant, following the good teams is hard enough. Imagine trying to pick a first round game between 14th seeded William and Mary and 19th seeded Harvard after an even more insignificant regular season than we already have in place.
Finally, and most importantly:
7. Office pools everywhere will go into a frenzy. Will a 96-team bracket even fit on an 8.5” X 11” sheet of paper? If some brilliant engineer can figure it out, will it not look really awkward? This alone should be ample reason to call your local NCAA official.
Too bad it’s hopeless. Next February, the approach of spring training will likely seem even more appealing.