Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Leave the tournament the way it is
#4 in a series of last-day posts

There is grumbling every year in the immediate aftermath of Selection Sunday, of course, as to who gets left behind. This year the grumbling seemed even louder and was given a new sound bite: an unprecedented number of D-I teams, it is said, won at least 20 games.

Meaning: 1) there are more D-I teams than there used to be; and 2) the "power"-conference teams are becoming more savvy about scheduling numerous W's in November and December.

Be that as it may, where there's Selection Sunday grumbling there is always a proposal: expand the field of 65.

The most attractive aspect of this proposal is that it would greatly enhance the prospects of seeing genuinely interesting and competitive games in November and December. Big-name programs from different conferences could actually schedule each other home-and-away, or even create long-running series like Notre Dame-Michigan or Florida-Florida State in football.

But benefits gained in November and December would be paid for the rest of the season. Increasing the field to 128 teams would, for example, drain much of the suspense and uncertainty from February. Had there been an expanded field this year, the bubble discussion would have moved off of Illinois, Arkansas, Syracuse, and Missouri State and onto, say, Penn State, South Carolina, Cincinnati, and Fordham. True, bubble teams aren't much of a threat to do damage in the tournament as it is. But at least with the field of 65 there's always the hope, admittedly small, that one of the last teams in will pull a North Carolina 2000 and get to the Final Four. That hope would shrink to virtual nonexistence with a field of 128 teams.

Worse, an expanded field would mean a first round of the NCAA tournament that would unavoidably be populated by a critical mass of really dull games. Indeed, they wouldn't even be games as much as foregone conclusions. If there's never been a case where a 1-seed loses to a 16-seed, imagine the tense excitement of 1 vs. 32 and 2 vs. 31 matchups. (And don't even speak of first-round byes. Off the table. Entry to the tournament may be granted on grounds more or less aristocratic but once you get there it's a straight meritocracy. Has to be.)

So I say: let Syracuse think they were robbed. That's a way better tale to tell over a beer in 2017 than "we lost to New Mexico State in the round of 128." Selection is the necessary prelude of potential injustice, leading up to an almost ideally just tournament.

Besides, justice can sting as badly as injustice. Those beautifully "Euclidean" brackets have their ruthless side. Seeing the glass as half-empty, the March onslaught of conference tournaments is indeed something of a blood-letting. And then that hired goon known as the NCAA tournament finishes the job by exterminating 64 of the 65 teams left standing.

The nice thing about a botched travesty like the BCS, conversely, is that its very incompetence creates space to speculate recklessly and without contradiction by events: "If only...."

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