SANTANNA: Expanding tournament leads to more problems

Kaitlin Santanna

As the calendar turned to March last week, Christmas came early to millions of NCAA basketball fans across the nation.

The most anticipated part of the year, the culmination of a season filled with strife and success, features conference tournaments that will decide conference championships and those teams that will safely extend their season until the end of the month.

More importantly, the week leading up to March Madness is one of eagerness, as the selection committee decides which teams will make an appearance in the NCAA tournament. Bracketologists for every sports media outlet attempt to project the final matchups, and fans of universities across the nation impatiently wait for their school’s fate to be finalized.

But what if this anticipation did not exist? What if there were no question that your university would receive a bid among the nation’s best college basketball teams? The guesswork was already removed from the Big East Tournament this season since, for the first time since the conference expanded, both the men’s and women’s tournaments will include all 16 teams.

While no consensus can be hammered down for the NCAA tournament, there has been a constant discussion for expansion in this forum as well. Although this democratic system of distributing bids may appear to make the tournaments more exciting, it takes away from the esteem that comes along with being labeled as a playoff team.

Everybody loves a Cinderella story. Seemingly every playoff run, no matter the sport, contains one team that surprises everyone. In the Big East men’s tournament, this came in 2006 when Syracuse won four games in as many days to win the Big East Championship. Cinderllas have made appearance sin other conference tournaments as well, such as Georgia and its unbelievable SEC-title run last year.

These teams may be pinned as Cinderella stories, but, in fact, they were strong teams who were at least moderately successful within their own conference. In its three seasons in the Big East, South Florida’s men’s basketball team has failed to make the Big East tournament. That means that it has yet to finish in at least 12th place in the last three seasons. How do the Bulls deserve a bid into a championship season when they haven’t managed to finish within the top 75 percent in the conference? A similar argument can be made for DePaul, who failed to win a single conference game this season.

Would it not be more exciting for teams to battle for a spot in the conference tournament? I would much prefer to see teams sweating it out down the stretch than to see a last-placed team with little chance of moving on gain immediate access into the tournament.

While it may seem helpful to include more teams in a conference tourney, it may actually decrease the possible number of NCAA bids a conference can receive, especially one as deep as the Big East. The proposition of a lower-seed winning an early round matchup is probable, but these upsets may burst the bubble teams ranked Nos. 5-8 – teams that have a chance of success in the national tournament when up against teams from another less talented conference.

Since a similar expansion was first proposed for the NCAA Tournament three years ago, suggested that the tournament be doubled to 128 teams, several small positives could be argued. More teams means more universities involved, leading to more satisfied fans, alumni and coaches. The length of the tournament would also be drawn out, a fact that the NCAA could promote as increased drama and excitement.

An expanded tournament might mean more exhilaration, but it inevitably means more headaches. The selection committee has enough trouble planning out a 65-team bracket – scheduling one twice as large would be nearly impossible. A nearly month-long tournament also means that players and trainers have to be away from school for an extended period during a time of increased work in the semester.

The setup now includes 65 teams bound for the NCAA tournament and 40 others that qualify for the NIT. In all, just over 100 teams make the postseason, about one-third the number of teams in Division I. Having this number of teams gives the postseason a sense of legitimacy, ensuring that only teams that are truly qualified get to show their skills on the national level. An addition would diminish this feeling.

It is this conservation of authenticity among playoff teams that is the first thing to disappear whenever talk of expansion is brought up. There is a sense of elitism that is attached to a school when they are NCAA tournament contenders, a sense of pride and celebration that comes when your university is chosen for the highest level of postseason play. What makes March Madness so compelling and exciting is the matchup of truly talented teams.

It would be a shame to see March Madness turn into the Division I college football playoff situation. Where playing in a bowl game once held a great level of accomplishment, the onslaught of sponsors all wanting to add their name to a bowl game has increased the playoff field so much that it seems as if any team with a halfway decent record can make the postseason.

Where the NCAA tournament stands now, and how the Big East used to be, ensures that only teams who have proven themselves throughout the season are eligible to gain access into one of sports’ most exciting weeks of playoffs.

Keeping the field small not only keeps headaches to a minimum, but also guarantees a March filled with madness and truly competitive matchups en route to naming the conferences’ and league’s most elite teams.


Kaitlin Santanna is a senior mathetmatics and communication major from Hummelstown, Pa. She can be reached at [email protected].