On Selection Sunday, George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga waited anxiously to see if his school's name would be called.
"You're sitting on pins and needles and very nervous, and you kind of have a little bit of a cold sweat, worried that you're not going to make the field," Larranaga said. "Everybody's predicting that you won't, and yet you still feel you're qualified and deserve a shot. It's so thrilling to hear your name called."
The rest, as they say, is history. Larranaga led the Patriots on a magical run through March Madness, upsetting traditional powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on their way to the school's and the Colonial Athletic Association's first-ever berth in the Final Four.
George Mason's stunning success in the NCAA Tournament has sparked a compelling debate: if one of the last teams to make the field can make it all the way to the Final Four, how good are some of the teams that don't make it? After all, Hofstra, one of the final teams left out of the tournament, beat the Patriots twice in the 10 days leading up to Selection Sunday.
The growing parity of college basketball-epitomized by George Mason's Cinderella ride to Indianapolis-forced the game's executives to debate whether March Madness has become too exclusive an event.
The NCAA Basketball Committee discussed and ultimately decided against expanding the NCAA Tournament beyond its current setup of 65 teams during its annual meeting in late June. The committee, headed by Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, believed that the current landscape of college basketball did not necessitate a change to its cherished season-ending tournament.
"We discussed what we thought were the pros and cons and decided that at this point in time there wasn't enough benefit to be accrued through expanding the tournament," Littlepage said. "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
The NCAA added a 65th team to the tournament in 2001, but the concept of major expansion had been dormant for several years, in large part due to a 2001 lawsuit filed by the National Invitational Tournament against the NCAA. The lawsuit was settled last summer, but the topic emerged in the weeks following the 2006 tournament, one of the most unpredictable and compelling tournaments in recent memory.
In addition to George Mason becoming just the second No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four, none of the four No. 1 seeds made it to college basketball's promised land, a first since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The gap between the teams from the six "elite" conferences and the rest of college basketball appears to be as narrow as ever. Only two first-round games were decided by more than 20 points, compared to seven such blowouts only three years ago. Additionally, of the eight teams receiving No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, only UCLA won its first-round contest by more than 16 points.
"I think it's just evidence of the fact that there are more quality teams," said Jim Haney, the director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
In the last few years, there has been more and more discussion on the merits of "mid-major" conferences leading up to Selection Sunday. The recent success of schools such as Gonzaga, Kent State and now George Mason have led many to believe that more teams deserve an invite to the Big Dance.
Critics of the expansion idea, however, have said the new openings would likely go to a sixth or seventh team from a BCS conference rather than a second or third from a mid-major league.
"The only reason I think there should be an expansion is because I think there are more good teams," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said.
Larranaga admitted that while trying to determine his team's chances heading into Selection Sunday, he couldn't reduce the field beneath 72 teams he felt were deserving of a bid.
"I felt certain that we were qualified and were deserving," Larranaga said. "But there are so many other teams that probably felt the same way."
Another impetus for expansion is the increase in schools eligible for the tournament. Since the NCAA's last major expansion, from 48 teams to 64 in 1985, the membership in Division I has increased dramatically.
"There might have been 280 schools eligible to play when the field expanded to 64," Haney said. "Since that time, the size of Division I has grown to 330 on its way to 340. So that's a considerable increase in the number of Division I schools without any increase in the size of the field."
Although no formal proposals were presented to the committee, coaches and executives have informally discussed expanding to anywhere between 68 and 128 teams. Boeheim discussed adding three to 12 teams whereas Larranaga would like to see at least 80 teams earn bids.
"I would not want to see one or two more additional play-in games," Larranaga said. "That to me would not be adding quality to the NCAA Tournament."
Haney mentioned doubling the tournament to include 128 teams, but he admitted that such expansion was, at this point in time, "unrealistic." The idea of such large expansion has generated concerns about extending the tournament another week, a potential drain on student-athletes as well as a scheduling conflict for CBS, which broadcasts the Masters golf tournament the weekend after the Final Four.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he would like to see every conference tournament include all its members before the NCAA Tournament expands. The Big East, in particular, has drawn criticism for allowing only 12 of its 16 teams to play in the conference tournament.
For now, the idea of expanding the tournament has been postponed, mainly because March Madness remains one of the most anticipated and dramatic events of the sports calendar.
"This bracket thing with 64, it's such a phenomenon," Krzyzewski said. "We have this thing right now that captures the country for a whole month. I don't know if you mess with that."
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