By modern American sports standards, the single-elimination NCAA basketball tournament has remained relatively exclusive.
It started as eight teams, and stayed at that number from 1939 to 1950.
Then it expanded to 16. Then to 22. Then to 32. Then to 40.
In 1980, it expanded to 48. Four years later, it expanded to 52. A year later, it expanded to 53, due to another play-in game.
From 1985 to 2000, the brackets held 64 teams, with a play-in game added in the year 2001 to push the total to 65.
And even at that size, it wasn’t easy to get in.
This season, for instance, 347 schools participated in Division I competition.
That means that only 18.7 percent of those schools got to celebrate on NCAA Selection Sunday.
Compare that to the country’s professional sports. The NHL and NBA each allow 16 of 30 teams into the playoffs. That’s 53.3 percent. The NFL grants postseason access to 12 of 32 teams. That’s 37.5 percent. Even Major League Baseball finds room for eight of 30 teams. That’s 26.7 percent, and that number may expand to 33.3 soon, as owners consider whether to add another wild card team for each league.
And, while the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision still has no playoff system, it does have 34 bowls, meaning that 68 of 119 teams get to play in the postseason. That’s 57.1 percent.
That’s one of the arguments you will hear in favor of expanding of the NCAA tournament as soon as next March, perhaps to 68 teams, but possibly to as many as 96, with 32 getting first-round byes and then facing the winners of 32 play-in games. You’ll hear that argument made not just by NCAA administrators but also by college coaches, many of whom are in full support of the idea. The NCAA has been exploring expansion since 2004, but the whispers have grown louder in recent weeks, as the organization considers opting out of its $6 billion television contract with CBS, three years before its conclusion.
Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, has made it clear in repeated interviews that fans, coaches and administrators should prepare for change. He has spoken about the need for the NCAA to determine what is best for its revenue stream, and that means working with television partners to produce the most lucrative event. The current basketball deal, even in its current form, is so lucrative that it allows the organization to hold events in many other sports. Expansion could lead to even greater riches.
“It’s money,” said John Feinstein, author of numerous college basketball books, including A Season on the Brink, about Indiana University’s program under the leadership of coach Bob Knight. “It’s all money.
"There’s not a single other reason to expand the tournament, other than that NCAA wants probably the Disney dollars from ESPN.”
Or perhaps Turner Broadcasting.
The thought turns Feinstein’s stomach.
“It’s the worst idea since New Coke,” Feinstein said. “The NCAA is uniquely gifted at taking one of the few things they do right and screw it up. Sixty-four is the perfect number. They went to 65 when they had to go to 34 at-large teams when the Mountain West (Conference) came on line.”
If they expand again?
“Selection Sunday would lose all its magic,” Feinstein said. “You’d have a bunch of first-round games nobody would want to see. And you’d have very mediocre teams in the tournament. One of the things that makes the tournament fun is that when you make it, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, because are a few good teams that get left out every year. Not that many, but a few. So if they came in and said, ‘We want to go to 68, and have four play-in games, and play one day at Dayton, and sent the bottom at-large teams there,’ I’m fine with it. But 96 is ridiculous.”
Others share that sentiment.
Just visit an NBA arena, and talk to players who participated in the NCAA tournament in all its 65-team glory.
“I think it’s cool like it is,” said Mario Chalmers, a Miami Heat guard who helped Kansas win the 2008 championship. “You’ve got your at-large teams, and you’ve got your small schools, where the conference champion gets in. I think that’s good enough.”
“Don’t do that,” said San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner, who played in the NCAA tournament during all four of his seasons at Florida. “Besides the fact that the level of participants would get watered down, there’s something special to me about the exclusivity of the 65 teams, and all these small schools that their only shot at making it is winning the conference tournament. I like it the way it is. If you start adding teams, it makes those conference tournaments a little less special. It takes a lot of the pressure out of your regular season.”
Quentin Richardson, a Heat forward who made the tournament while with DePaul, wasn’t in favor of expansion, but tried to look at the other side: “I guess it would be good that more kids would get to experience the tournament.”
“Well, then, why don’t you just have every team in the tournament?” said Steve Blake, a Los Angeles Clippers guard who won a national championship with Maryland in 2002. “Someone’s not going to make it in one way or another, so why are some kids more important than other kids? To me, that doesn’t make sense.”
San Antonio Spurs forward Richard Jefferson, a former Arizona Wildcat, thinks that Cinderellas will have a harder time, because they’ll likely have to play another game (five rather than four) to get to the Final Four.
You get the point. It’s a tough sell, particularly to those who played for elite programs and rarely had their bubbles burst.
Still, it looks like many college coaches may get what they want, even as early as 2011, and even after a college basketball season that, by most accounts, featured fewer quality teams than any in recent memory.
Even CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz acknowledged that “the talent’s not there (this season). It doesn’t pass the eye test. ... This is not college basketball as we used to know it.”
That manifested itself on Selection Sunday. The controversy mostly centered on where the chosen teams were seeded, and where they were sent, not which teams were snubbed entirely. Yes, Virginia Tech, Rhode Island and Alabama-Birmingham had cases to get in. But it’s not like anyone was arguing that any of those teams had outstanding seasons.
So if it was difficult to find 65 worthy teams, imagine the trouble finding 96.
As ESPN’s Jay Bilas said, “This is the weakest at-large field in the history of the tournament. If you can’t make it in this year, you probably can’t really play.”
Which teams might have made the NCAA field, if the expansion had occurred this year?
Just look at the National Invitational Tournament, if you dare. It takes 32 teams that the NCAA can't accommodate.
This year, that field includes North Carolina, which finished tied for ninth in the ACC with a 5-11 conference record, and stands at 16-16 overall. The Tar Heels are 8-point favorites in the first round against William and Mary.
While some coaches — notably Kentucky’s John Calipari — are against expansion, the majority have expressed support. The most notable proponent is Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who certainly wouldn’t have needed the help this year, as his Orange are a No. 1 seed. For other coaches, though, expansion means as many as 31 more spots, and grabbing one of those could be the difference between a contract extension and a plank walk.
Miami missed both the NCAA and NIT despite a 20-13 record and a strong run in the ACC Tournament. (OK, the Hurricanes did finish last in the ACC with a 4-12 mark in the conference’s regular season.)
“I think it’s something that we need to explore because there are so many mid-major conferences now that you see a lot of those (leagues) getting multiple teams in the tournament,” Haith said. “I don’t know if we need the 96 that everyone’s talking about, but I’d like to see them explore it.”
It appears they will. And that’s fine with former college basketball stars Clark Kellogg and Greg Anthony, both of whom are now CBS analysts.
Both were against it at first.
“Change is always uncomfortable, for anybody, or any organization,” Kellogg said. “And when you don’t know exactly what the plans are for change, it’s even more uncomfortable.”
Now it looks unstoppable.
“I think the winds are blowing in that direction,” Kellogg said.
And he’s willing to go with them.
“My posture has changed to be open-minded about it,” Kellogg said.
So has Anthony’s.
“When you really think it through, the tournament has expanded from 32 to 48 to 64 and 65,” Anthony said. “Every time, it’s proven to be the right choice, and the tournament has continued to thrive and even prosper. You are also going to create a scenario, where you are going to start having better teams in some of the non-power conferences. Now these kids are going to go to schools because they know they are going to have the opportunity to play on the national stage. Whether or not it happens, who knows? But that potential does exist, and if the possibility does arise, I still think the tournament will continue to be what it is.”