NCAA tourney field ought to be expanded

The two best men’s basketball teams in the country played for the national championship Monday night, a fact that would seem to confer a good amount of legitimacy on North Carolina’s title run. Ric Flair would tell you that to be the best (whooooo!) you gotta beat the best, and in toppling Illinois — a team that had been at the top of the polls for upwards of four months — Carolina did just that.

But before the Heels dispatched the Illini, they had yet to play a team seeded higher than fifth in the draw. Their last three tournament games were against teams from the Big Ten, a conference that last year placed three teams in the tournament (three fewer than Conference USA) and whose relative weakness even this year had placed a question mark next to Illinois’ potential to run with the big dogs on a national scale despite its early season rout of Wake Forest.

Had Connecticut not flaked out in the second round, how would Carolina have handled the defending champs? Had Kansas not flamed out even earlier, how would the ever-resourceful Roy Williams have dealt with having to face his former players with a trip to St. Louis in the balance? With Curtis Sumpter’s injury fatally weakening a Villanova team that is primed for a title run next season, the fact remains that, prior to the championship game, Carolina’s path had been less than rigorous. I know the argument — you can only play the teams in front of you. Still, NC State and Bucknell did Carolina a huge favor.

Back to Flair, though. Like many others, I had my doubts entering the tournament that Roy’s boys would be able to play six games without imploding. What no one doubted was that Carolina would be the best team on the court each time it stepped out there, but the potential for a reversion to the individualistic and inconsistent ways of the past few seasons was always just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, the Heels did not have to beat the best en route to their coronation.

The NCAA Tournament is a huge crapshoot, a one-and-done affair that can be substantially altered by inconsistent referees, T.J. Sorrentine morphing into Bryce Drew, site placement (Illinois playing six home games this tournament) and any other number of factors. Once the field has been set and the games actually begin, the likelihood of something unlikely happening becomes almost a certainty.

To counterbalance this reality and to acknowledge the growing parity in college hoops that has emerged in the high-school-to-the-pros era, I’m going to go ahead and side with Jim Boeheim and others who have begun to agitate for an expansion of the 64-team field. Boeheim is a coach who has both benefited from and been felled by the tournament’s unpredictable nature over the past three seasons, winning it all as a No. 3 seed in 2003 and suffering the ignominy of losing to a No. 13 seed in the first round this year. He understands as well as anyone how a team can trap lightning in a bottle for a brief period (one game, even) and make or break a season. Expanding the field would do a few things to offset this.

It might be counterintuitive, but a 96-team, or even a 128-team, field would strengthen the talent pool. The fact that each conference must be represented means that at least a dozen of each year’s participants have almost no chance of winning even one game. Couple that with the realization that some of these teams had losing records in their own weak leagues before rattling off a couple quick wins in a conference tourney, and you’re stuck with a 12-18 Oakland team in the tournament instead of a 17-win major conference program and a ridiculous opening round game for — yes — Carolina.

Clearly, one more game means one more opportunity for a fluky upset of one of the tournament’s frontrunners. But it also helps substantiate a championship by making a team’s run to the title exceedingly more difficult. If Carolina had had to play seven games instead of six, or face a team in the Elite Eight that played only double-digit seeds in its first three rounds, as Wisconsin did this year, the Heels might not have had the run they did.

Earning a bid from the selection committee has become an increasingly dubious process, with lobbying and promotional campaigns such as the unsuccessful full-court press put on by Indiana this year becoming more commonplace. Just getting in is more than half the battle. Before the Big East Tournament, West Virginia was on the outside of the draw looking in. Now they’re one of the country’s eight best teams? Who’s to say that South Carolina or St. Joseph’s — teams with regular season resumes comparable to those of low-seeded at-large teams like UCLA — would not have been able to go on a similar tear had they been allowed to dance?

There are over 320 Division I basketball programs. Right now, over 100 of these participate in post-season play. At one point, the NIT was the more prestigious of the two affairs. Now it’s about as cool as the clap. The NFL doesn’t let the teams that finish in seventh through 10th place in each conference play their own post-season tournament, and the players wouldn’t want to if they could. Although if they did, the game should be called the Superfluous Bowl, and it would be clever. Moreover, the hypocrisy of university presidents who allow their schools to extend their season to play in a second-rate tournament while maintaining that a tournament in Division I football would keep athletes from the classroom for too long is a little much. The NIT has run its course.

Last year it was Xavier who rolled to the Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed. You’re telling me that Maryland, a team that twice knocked off Duke this year, wouldn’t have been capable of such a run if they’d been admitted this year? Their regular season record wasn’t what you would call exemplary, but the selection criteria at this point is so flawed that I don’t buy the argument that they should have earned their way in there in order to have that chance. Expansion has undoubtedly diluted the quality of professional sports. It would do just the opposite to the NCAA Tournament.

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