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NCAA Tournament Expansion Talk

The men's and women's basketball committees are meeting this week in Orlando and one of the hot topics up for discussion is whether they should expand the NCAA Tournament to include more than the current field of 65. This idea was floated back in March at the Final Four and USA Today raised the issue in May on the grounds of parity. In both cases expansion propsals topped out at 80 teams. Now as the committees prepare to meet the National Association of Basketball Coaches is asking for complete doubling of the field to 128 teams.

That's right 128 teams.

The reasons cited for such a grand expansion are the failure to include tournament worthy teams and the fact the 64/65 team format has been in place for a long time. The also cite the increased number of Division I teams, the fact the NIT is now controlled by the NCAAs, and the George Mason tournament run.

First of all the longevity of one format over another is a weak argument. I would take that to mean it works and very well so there is no need to change it. As for NCAA control of both postseason tournaments, that does not seem to matter to me.

The two reasons I take issue with the most is the "George Mason" argument and the increased number of Division 1 teams.

The GM argument stipulates that by expanding the field it increases the chances for small schools to have their own magical Final Four run based on the Patriots' improbable run in the the 2006 Final Four. However I would argue that a 128 team expansion would actually kill such runs because it add an additional game these Cinderella schools have to play. It is my observation that the more games a lower seed has to play the worse off they are in continuing the run. In a 128 team field GM would have played a team 11 spots lower than them before facing the higher seeds. While there is no conclusive evidence of how an extra game would effect the outcomes of future matchups I tend to think that had GM been saddled with an opener against a lower seed it would have hurt them going forward. And if they contest the first round a weekend before the round of 64 or even at different sites then changing sites or experiencing a delay also gives higher seeds more time to prep for the upcoming lower seed. I think the GM argument is a celebrity cause for the coaches who want to strike a tone with the fans who they perceive are hungry for a bevy of lower seeds penetrating deep into the tournament. I think the rarity of the feat is what makes it compelling and special to watch.

The second argument on the number of D1 schools is also a simple argument to refute. Taking the CollegeRPI rankings posted by Jerry Palm there are 334 D1 schools playing basketball. The argument the coaches are making is based on that number but the real number that should be considered is the number of teams which finished above .500 last season which is only 171 teams. Why is this important? Because outside of winning an automatic bid there is no way a team which lost more than they won should get anywhere close to the NCAA Tournament. In fact I am not entirely sure a team that is under .500 in their conference should be allowed into the NCAA Tournament. Assuming you use this rule it would mean you are taking 75% of the teams, who, in many cases, did nothing but finish with one or two more wins that losses. This would essentially render the regular season worthless except for purposes of seeding. It would set up a system where all a major conference school has to do is win 15-17 games and they know they are getting in to the tournament. And while parity is nice the tournament also has to have credibility and adding 63 teams, of which there are at most eight who were borderline exclusions, is an inherently bad idea. Getting into the NCAA Tournament must actually mean more than playing one game above .500 all season. The prize of winning the national championship must be based on earning your way into an exclusive field of teams which includes enough good teams to make you earn your way to the top. A field of 65 is less than half the winning teams out there which means the regular season has served its purpose in weeding out the bad teams.

The reasons the NBCA gave are cover for the real motive behind such an expansion and that is job security. Most of the job stability which surrounds a coach is tied to his ability to make the NCAA Tournament. Coaches like Jim Boeheim, who floated the 80 team field at the Final Four, are afraid they cannot guarantee a spot in the tournament every year because of the increased parity from the mid-majors. They also unwilling to give up there lucrative home games against St. Sebastian's School for the Fingerless in exchange for road games at mid-majors or even hosting them for fear they will get beaten at home. In other words there are apparently enough coaches who would feel a lot better about keeping their job if getting into the tournament were easier.

In my opinion getting into the tournament is not supposed to be easy. Getting a NCAA berth should mean you played well all season and you acquitted yourself as one of the best 65 teams in the country. Yes, automatic bids to lower seeded conference finishers does muck things up a bit, and yes a few teams would get shafted every year who could have won one or two games. But the last thing you want to is make so a winning record virtually locks you into a NCAA Tournament berth and until I see more than one #11 seed making the Final Four every 20 years I would not tinker with the current system. It seems to a do a decent job producing a worthy national champion.