An Alternative to Tournament Expansion
Sports fans and many of the people who cover sports for a living are funny. This week I’ve heard pundits both amateur and professional acknowledge the fine run that has gotten Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament and then, in the next breath, point out that they didn’t deserve a bid in the first place. Even now, Dan Patrick maintains that VCU’s winning streak doesn’t legitimize their inclusion and others have echoed that opinion.
Now that VCU and Butler have both made it to the marquee event in college basketball, there is certain to be a renewed push to expand the tournament to include more teams. When the initial pairings were announced, Sporting News Radio’s Steve Czaban actually floated a conspiracy theory that the NCAA intentionally snubbed Virginia Tech for yet another year so they could have a justification to inflate the tournament to 96 teams; a plan that was on the drawing board before the sport’s legislative body settled on the compromise of four play-in, er, “first round” games with an additional 3 teams.
Another frequent observation regarding the tournament is that it’s conducive to upsets because of the ‘one & done’ format. Quite frankly, I believe that is the reason for the tournament’s popularity in that it allows for virtually any team involved to have a plausible chance to advance to the title game. But it also leads to the ‘fairness complaint’ that the tournament doesn’t always crown the best champion because a so-called inferior club can get on a VCU-type roll and surpass more accomplished programs.
Personally I’d prefer to see the tournament stay at 68 teams, but then I previously liked it in its 32, 64, and 65 team configurations. In my opinion, any further expansion of the tournament would only serve to dilute the product. In essence, the NCAA tourney is already open to virtually every team in the country (sans the Ivy League) because of the automatic bids that can be secured by winning the conference tournaments. The tournament can be made more inclusive in its current format by giving the selection committee some binding guidelines concerning won-loss record and RPI, and by capping conference bids at a given number. This would have the added benefit of giving member programs some parameters when it comes to scheduling and likely reduce the amount of second-guessing directed at the selection committee.
If the NCAA in its infinite wisdom decides that it needs to tweak the tournament format yet again, here’s a different idea to consider: go to a double-elimination system as it already does in Division I baseball. Such an arrangement might actually require a decrease in teams due to the differences between the nature of the sports. But the NCAA manages to make it work with 64 teams in baseball and this concept would help insure that the best teams advance while still allowing for the possibility of upsets.
There’s no question that this idea would fundamentally change the character of the tournament. Nevertheless, purely from a competiton standpoint, it would be far more compelling than simply throwing more teams into the equation.