Expansion in sports not always a bright idea

Just as Bud Selig, David Stern and Gary Bettman would gladly attest, expansion in sports is not always a bright idea.

Expansion could soon come to yet another one of America’s most cherished sports entities—the NCAA Tournament. Proposals to expand its current field of 65 teams to 96 entrants have garnered significant praise from those in the basketball world, including Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Although it’s easy to dismiss this idea from the get-go, for all due diligence let’s work under the assumption that the model advocated by Krzyzewski is adopted, in which conferences would pick up additional at-large bids. Conference tournaments would be scrapped in favor of regular season standings as the determining factor for such slots, making it possible to project the sort of teams that would be additions to the March mix. It doesn’t take much examination to see that the new additions to the tournament field are far from Belles of the Ball.

A cursory glance at last season’s regular season standings and the second-place finishers that might now be locked into bids in a 96-team tournament yields a list of schools that wouldn’t excite any fans outside their respective student bodies. Delaware State, Jacksonville and Bucknell—with its 14-17 record—all finished second in their respective conferences this year. Those teams would thus be on the fringe or included as part of a 96-team tournament field.

But consider the following: If the annual Fall guarantee games that major basketball powers like Duke play against these sort of teams are consistently snoozers that struggle to retain a fruit fly’s attention, how would anyone apart from a compulsive gambler enjoy a game between two of these teams?

Krzyzewski’s version of expansion allows for the top 32 teams in the tournament to receive first-round byes while the bottom 64 schools play a round to whittle down the field. In effect, the current NCAA Tournament play-in game that has given us such classic matchups as Oakland-Alabama A&M and Monmouth-Hampton would morph into a massive play-in weekend, presumably composed of similarly uncompelling games.

And even if some fringe-bubble “power conference” teams like Illinois or Virginia Tech (both participants in the 2010 NIT) were to slot into this first weekend, its hard to see how expansion would strengthen the Tournament as a whole. Adding another round of games against favored foes would raise the gauntlet for Cinderella teams to spring a big upset—the key element that year after year makes March Madness such compelling television.

David might have taken five stones with him into his duel with Goliath, but adding another early game would in effect mean that the Davids of the college basketball world would have to waste all five shots on lesser foes before even getting a crack at the big target.

Furthermore, the most vocal chorus in advocacy of a larger tournament is of head coaches themselves. With tournament appearances or the lack thereof often a key decisional factor in whether to retain or relieve a coach on the hot seat, it should come as no surprise that coaches are calling for an expanded tournament. It’s not hard to make the assumption that their support is far less about of improving the overall quality of the NCAA Tournament and far more steeped in motives of self-preservation.

For the sake of college basketball and the sanctity of the NCAA Tournament, let’s hope that March Madness remains as currently composed.


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