Leonard Hamilton answered the question about possible NCAA basketball tournament expansion with a question of his own.
“What do you think?” Florida State’s ageless head coach asked last week at the ACC’s preseason gathering.
“It’s a bad idea,” I replied.
“What you don’t understand,” Hamilton countered, “is the joy and sense of accomplishment” that come with making the NCAA tournament. “It outweighs anything that is negative.”
Actually, everyone understands the joy of bracket qualification. The celebrations of automatic bids, earned with conference tournament championships, are that emotional and indelible.
The issue is whether Division I college basketball produces enough deserving teams to merit significant expansion of the 68-team field. That answer is no.
People are also reading…
Understand that major college sports are not like your local rec league, where everyone needs a trophy. Indeed, with name, image and likeness compensation, college athletes bear no resemblance to innocent amateurs.
“I know the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl,” said Virginia Tech coach Mike Young, “but the NCAA tournament is unlike anything else and to dabble with that and go to 76 [teams] or whatever might come [from] whatever committee, I just think, I think it would be a mistake.
“But I probably thought it was a mistake when we went from 64 to 68, and that’s worked out quite well. Let’s be honest. Isn’t [this] conference commissioners that want more of their teams included?”
Oh, the thirst for more bids and revenue is absolutely at the forefront here. More teams, more television inventory, more money.
The expansion conversation, which percolates every few years, emanates anew from the NCAA transformation committee, where administrators are pondering whether Division I championships should include up to 25% of eligible teams. For men’s and women’s basketball, that equates to 90 teams, 22 more than the current bracket.
Hamilton doesn’t believe that’s enough. He advocates essentially doubling the field to 128, which would equate to a seven-round, no-bye tournament, just like Wimbledon tennis.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga suggests 96 teams, with the 32 conference tournament winners earning a first-round bye. The 64 at-large selections would play in the opening round, the 32 survivors joining the automatic qualifiers in the main bracket.
If expansion is inevitable, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has the most benign preference: Bump the field to 80 by staging four opening-round games in each of the four regions. Rewarded with first-round byes, the top 48 teams would await the 16 first-round winners in the traditional 64-team bracket.
“I think we can do this without jacking up the template,” Brey said, “which is awesome. ... Let [the players] feel it, man. It’s unbelievable to see kids experience [the NCAA tournament].”
Entering his 47th season as Syracuse’s head coach, Jim Boeheim has been advocating for tournament expansion almost from the moment the field grew to 64 in 1986.
“I talked about it for 30 years and they thought I was an idiot,” he said. “I was right then. I’m more right now. There’s more good teams. There used to be 50, 60, 70 good teams. Now there’s 150. There’s twice as many good teams as there used to be, and there’s not twice as many good teams in the tournament.”
Please. Only 176 Division I teams had winning records last season on Selection Sunday, including 17 that were below 200th in the NET rankings used by the tournament selection committee.
Does college basketball want to copycat college football and make reaching the NCAA tournament as routine as playing in a bowl?
If your answer is yes, then consider this: Every Division I team already makes the postseason in the form of conference tournaments. Those events are the NCAA tournament’s preliminary rounds. You advance until you lose.
As the College Football Playoff is experiencing with its impending expansion, the logistical hurdles of growing such an event are formidable — arena and hotel availability; regular-season calendar; television obligations.
Ah, yes, television. CBS and Turner are contracted to air the Division I men’s basketball tournament for another 10 seasons, and CBS will not allow college basketball to intrude upon its Masters golf coverage, which falls the weekend after the Final Four.
The logistics are “a Rubik’s Cube times two,” said ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips, who sits on the transformation panel and is among the few who have served on both the men’s and women’s basketball committees. “[But] I really believe it to be possible, and I don’t think it gets watered down. I don’t believe that the NCAA tournaments get less exciting in baseball or lacrosse or basketball by having additional schools that qualify for [them].”
If those who manage other NCAA championships want to expand their tournaments, have at it. But the basketball brackets are as close to perfection as postseasons get.
“We’ve got a great tournament,” said Virginia Tech’s Young. “I hope they leave it as is.”