Wiedmer: If NCAA increases field, everybody should get in

Wiedmer: If NCAA increases field, everybody should get in

February 19th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

As you can read elsewhere on this page, the NCAA is considering expanding its Division I men's basketball tournament to 96 teams.

My question is, why stop there?

Why not let everybody in, all 335 schools? That's the number eligible for this year's tourney, according to NCAA.org. And that's more than five times the 65 lucky programs that will participate in this spring's Big Dance.

For three more measly rounds -- basically the length of a conference tournament for those teams that qualify that way -- everybody in Division I could have a chance to cut down the nets on the first Monday night in April.

In this age of more is more, what could be better than that?

"I'm not in favor of expanding the tournament," University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart said Thursday. "But if something like that could help mid-majors like us, I'd certainly be interested in looking into it."

The current system has worked almost perfectly for 25 years, ever since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams. The addition of the play-in game in 2001 elevated it to 65.

It's the closest thing to genius the NCAA has ever done. There are no byes and almost no unfair advantages since -- unlike so many NCAA women's tournaments -- no school is allowed to play on its home court.

In fact, the only problem UTC coach John Shulman has with the current format is the play-in game, which always pits two of the 31 automatic qualifiers rather than two at-large entries.

"If you're in the play-in game, you've won your conference or conference tournament, so you've done what the NCAA asked you to do," said Shulman, who's reached March Madness twice in five years and avoided the play-in contest both times. "You deserve to be a part of the main tournament, not travel to Dayton for one night.

"Why not make the last two at-large teams play the play-in game?"

Shulman makes an excellent point, but that's also why letting everybody in also makes sense.

So how would it work? First of all, the current season's too long. Except for preseason events such as the Maui Invitational, San Juan Shootout or Preseason NIT, no games should be played before the Monday after Thanksgiving. And those preseason tourneys must start no earlier than the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Beyond that, exhibition games can begin no sooner than the third week of November. The regular season is 26 games -- all of them played against D-I opponents -- if you aren't in a preseason tourney and 28 if you are. But you can play only one preseason event every three years.

Now for March Madness. No more conference tourneys. In leagues such as the Atlantic Coast, Big East and SEC, such departures will be met with great regret. Those events generate revenue and provide an early spring vacation for many of their fans.

But you're probably talking about less than 50 schools out of 335 who see any financial benefit from league tourneys.

"We don't distribute any revenue," Hart said regarding the Southern Conference tourney.

Added Shulman: "We were playing for an NCAA bid on our home court last year, and 5,000 people showed up."

So you drop the league tournaments in favor of Mega March Madness. Using a BCS-type computer program, you rank the schools 1 through 335, or whatever the number is that particular year. Because your first goal is to make sure you maintain a 64-team draw on neutral sites after the early rounds, your first round will involve only those schools that would get the tournament to 256.

This year might even require an extra play-in game or two, since you're dealing with an odd number, but you'd basically have 158 schools playing an extra round to get an eight-round tourney of 256.

At that point, higher seeds host each of the first two rounds with the tourney being reseeded after round one. These games are all played on the week that used to be reserved for major conference tournaments, which means the 64-team, three-week draw would proceed as it always has, wrapping up on the Monday night before the Masters.

This accomplishes several things. For one, while a Kentucky or a Kansas doesn't have to worry about playing No. 335 or 334, a mid-major has much to gain by getting a close to the top 100 as possible so it can play two home games. Every regular-season game would matter.

Second, as Shulman noted, "If you were hosting an NCAA game, I think you could count on a big crowd."

Or two big crowds.

And regardless of how the revenue was distributed, big crowds would mean bigger paydays for the little guys who need it most.

Lastly, no coach could ever claim he was fired for not making the NCAA tournament. And in these tough economic times, any reduction in unemployment would be a plus.