I feel like I am becoming the official BSR March Madness correspondent, but at least I didn’t have to cover the Terps yesterday… however, there is something I have to address- the possibility of a 96-team tournament. In talking about the benefits of expanding the tournament, many people like to talk about the excitement, the buzzer-beaters, the thrilling finishes, the elevation of a team’s play beyond what anyone expected. And I won’t dispute that an expansion of the tournament would give us more of some of those things. However, what most analysts fail to take into account is the very purpose of having a tournament. Has anyone, in advocating the expansion of the field to 96 teams, talked about the impact it will have on the reason we have a tournament?
Why do we have a tournament in the first place? Bear with me, here. Tournaments are held to determine the rightful champion of a sport by putting the best teams against each other and seeing who wins. In the end, it is assumed, the best team at that time will rise to the top- it doesn’t always happen, but it’s pretty close. Therefore, teams are let into a tournament on two key criteria: those who can reasonably make a case for being the best team in the country and those who have earned the right to be given the chance. The latter is where we get conference champions from- after all, if you win your conference it is only right that you get the opportunity to compete for the grand prize, no matter how bad your conference is. You’ve reached that level, so you can go on. The former category is trickier, and the field of 65 has given this a pretty wide berth. Was 10-seed Georgia Tech the best team in the country? Probably not, but they can make an argument that they might, in some stretch of games, be good enough to be given the benefit of the doubt. Considering that, it looks like we already give a lot of leeway to let teams into the tournament.
An expanded field would throw a host of mediocre teams onto the court who simply don’t belong in the discussion. The occasional upsets wouldn’t be a marginally deserving team knocking off a favorite; it would be a team that has no reasonable argument for being the best team getting a fluke win against a team that is probably much better. Northern Iowa is a good enough team that its win over Kansas made sense to some (sadly for my bracket, not for me). If Dayton (who would be in the field of 96) somehow beat Kansas, it could spoil the strength of the tournament. Why? Because adding more games increases the odds that fluky events would happen that would inhibit the tournament’s ability to determine the champion. The more games there are, the more chances that the best teams will get knocked off before they get a chance to show how good they really are.
Proponents of tournament expansion argue that the tournament has been getting larger for decades, and that we are overdue for an expansion. So what? Americans have been getting fatter for decades too, that doesn’t mean it should continue. Look, I am not against ever expanding any tournament, and I don’t think the #1 seeds should automatically get to the Final Four. I am simply saying that having 20% of your teams in the playoffs is fine for a league with more than 300 teams. The tournament expanded because there was a glut of talented teams that could have a legitimate shot to win it all, and that isn’t the case. The tent shouldn’t be made broader just to include a .500 North Carolina team. That isn’t the point of any tournament.
Nor should entry into the tournament be used as a pass to keep coaches around longer. Most coaches want to expand the tournament because it will keep them in their jobs- basketball coaches are judged on tournament appearances and how far they get in the tournament. But the solution is not to expand the tournament- that’s like printing money to solve a budget crisis. It might put more bills in people’s pockets, but over time it reduces the value of the tournament itself. The stage for determining a champion shouldn’t be used simply to give a gold star to teams who had a decent season.
Speaking of reducing value, where would a field of 96 teams put the regular season? As long as a major conference team had a record over .500 they could make the field. I know strength of schedule is taken into account, but if a team has a losing record in conference they could still make the tournament- if you can’t win half of your conference games you better have some set of big nonconference wins to validate yourself. Sadly, many of these teams don’t and won’t. I agree that it would put more regular season champions in the tournament from smaller conferences (I find it ridiculous that a team can win the regular season by a mile in a small conference and not get in), but the net result is going to be a 4 month waiting period until the “real” season starts.
Now let me take on the toughest issue of all- tournament excitement. People love to watch the underdogs, and this certainly would make more of them. No one roots for the low seeds more than I do, and I track them every year to see who can be the Cinderella. People love the thrilling finishes, and more games would certainly mean more of those. People want more March Madness, but more doesn’t mean they will get better March Madness. Games won’t be David vs. Goliath, they will be David vs. Goliath vs. Steve, with a host of mediocre major conference teams swarming in- talented yet sloppy teams, experienced but unskilled teams, the quality of play simply won’t be as good. Every year there are snubs, and Virginia Tech, Illinois, and others certainly were close to making a good case for the tournament. But they were all deeply flawed teams, moreso than most of the teams in the current field. Do we really want to have a tournament where Hofstra and Oregon State are bubble teams?
Honestly, if it weren’t for coaches worried about their job status or TV networks looking to make a little more money, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. March Madness is a beautiful thing- let’s keep it that way before we wind up with April Angst.