When the NCAA men's basketball committee's long-range planning subcommittee convenes in Houston next month, the topic of whether they should expand the NCAA tournament will be on the agenda. This is mostly a matter of timing. The NCAA recently announced its host cities for the Final Fours from 2014-16 (Dallas, Indianapolis and Houston), and all of those cities have large domes that need to be filled. "We're getting into the new cycle of Final Fours, so we'll bring [expansion] up as an issue," said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, the chairman of the men's basketball committee. "In the four years I've been on the committee, there are some years when we haven't even put [expansion] on the table. This year we will."
That does not mean that there is a lot of momentum towards making expansion happen. When I asked Guerrero in his office last week whether he felt the tournament should include more teams, he became the artful dodger. "I'm always open to look at anything in a general sense, but it doesn't mean I think it's a good thing. I also wouldn't say it's a bad thing." Then he smiled and said, "Is that a pretty diplomatic answer?"
Let me be less diplomatic: No fricking way. In the interest of fairness I will lay out the main arguments in favor of growing the bracket. Then, in the interest of advancing my point of view, I'll reject those arguments and wag my finger like Dikembe Mutombo.
• We're due. In 1978, the NCAA tournament included 40 teams. Over the next seven years, it expanded three times to reach 64. Aside from the addition of the play-in game –- sorry, opening-round game –- in 2001, the tournament has not been expanded in 25 years. "There used to be 32 teams," says Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who like many coaches is an advocate of expansion. "If 32 was good and 64 was better, why not grow it more?"
• There are too many good teams being left out. Unquestionably, there are more quality teams than there were even 10 years ago, much less 25. The tournament should reflect that.
• We should be more like college football. This is what I call "The Bowl Argument". As Montgomery puts it, "In college football, if you go to a bowl game, it's a heck of a deal. Half of the teams [in Division I-A] go to a bowl. In basketball, you can go 22-10 and still not make the tournament."
• It will save coaches' jobs. Though there are a few exceptions (Arkansas's Stan Heath being a recent one that comes to mind), in today's game, garnering an NCAA bid usually allows a coach to keep his job for another year. By contrast, a school's failure to make the tournament gives the athletic director a convenient excuse to cut his guy loose.
And now, for my point-by-point rebuttal:
• That was then, this is now. A confluence of factors spurred the tournament to grow so quickly between 1978 and '85. The most important of those were the rise of cable television, led by the launch of ESPN in September of '79, and CBS's ability to wrest coverage away from NBC beginning with the 1982 tournament. In other words, the NCAA met the public's demand. I don't believe there is anything near that same urge for more teams today. If you add another week of games, you risk diluting the product and squelching the public's interest. It's always better to leave the fans wanting more than to give them too much.
• There may be more good teams, but there are also a lot more mediocre ones -– and for the most part, those are the ones being left behind. If you really try to sit down and select 34 at-large teams in March, you have to hold your nose when making those last few picks. And even if one or two worthy teams are left out every year, isn't that a good thing? Getting into the tournament should be hard. If you make it too easy to get in, you diminish the accomplishment.
• The last thing college basketball should do is emulate college football's postseason. The fact that so many teams go to bowl games is a major problem for college football. Only one of those bowls really counts for something. Besides, you can draw an equivalent between the lesser bowl games and basketball's postseason NIT tournament. People already say with some accuracy that the NCAA tournament hurts college basketball's regular season. Expansion would hurt it more. And keep in mind that the NCAA now runs the NIT, which means if the NCAA tournament expanded, there would be fewer marquee teams for the NIT. That would be bad for business.
• Guerrero dismisses the idea that expanding the tournament would save coaches' jobs. "If you have 100 teams in the tournament, I don't think being the 90th team is going to have a significant bearing on whether someone will keep their job or not," he said. Regardless, I do have sympathy for the pressure that college basketball coaches face, which is why you will never see me blast a coach for being "disloyal" if he leaves for another job that pays more. But the only reason to expand the tournament would be, as Guerrero put it, "if it is for the overall good of the game." Not the overall good of the coaches.
There is one other reason I am against expansion, and it may be the most important of all: The mid-majors would get screwed. One of the models floating around would add three more opening-round games, which would mean one for each region. Well, who is going to play in those games? Is it going to be the smaller schools that give the tournament its charm –- and make it such a compelling television product? Or will it be the middling schools from the BCS conferences? I think we all know the answer to that.
In fact, if I could change one thing about the NCAA tournament, it would be to eliminate the opening-round game and have one less at-large team. Barring that, I would like to see the committee put at least one if not two at-large teams in the opening-round game. If nothing else, it would make for better television.
The bottom line: there is no case for expansion. When Guerrero raises the topic at his subcommittee meeting next month, I hope it is quickly dismissed. This tournament ain't broke. If the folks at the NCAA try to fix it, they just might ruin it.