A lot of people will claim that Florida Gulf Coast making the Sweet Sixteen is a sign that the tournament needs to be expanded. Even a condensed field would be likely to include conference tournament winners, so the better argument is that LaSalle is in the Sweet Sixteen (or that VCU was in the Final Four in 2011). So the argument goes that if teams at the very bottom can make a deep run in (or perhaps even win) the tournament, there should be more teams invited, as some of them have a shot also.
The flattening of the college basketball level doubtlessly means that there will be more “Cinderella” stories and that more teams have a chance to win the tournament. This is the premise under which Dicky V and many others would claim that we need more teams. The argument follows that we should include all the teams that have any chance of winning (or at least a chance of beating the teams that might have a chance to win).
I believe this is a mistake. You see, if every team that has any chance to win is included in the tournament, what was the point of playing the regular season? The best teams always have the best chance to win because they are…the best teams. As the gap decreases between that top layer and the next teams, definitionally differentiation becomes more difficult. The more difficult it is to differentiate, the more important it is to use the maximum amount of information at hand to differentiate.
Clearly the regular season is the best source of this information about which teams deserve a shot. The conference tournaments already give every team a shot to make the tournament. These factors, however, have contributed to the most ludicrous of seasons. Who really is eliminated from championship contention in the college basketball regular season? This year, one of the “first team’s out” was Kentucky, who couldn’t even beat Robert Morris in the NIT. I’m not saying that Kentucky couldn’t have created some damage in the NCAA tournament, because I believe they could have.
The mere fact that we allow a team to be under par all year and then sneak into a tournament and potentially win as our way of crowning a National Championship is ludicrous. I am not advocating a system like NCAA Football, where there are
good teams who had worthy seasons, which don’t make the playoffs because (wait for it…) there aren’t any. On the other hand, a system where making the playoffs is an accomplishment unto itself is better. You need look no further than the difference between the college football and college basketball regular seasons to see, a season that matters is just better.
I state that a reduced field is the way to go. There are still approximately 30 conference champions who get automatic invitations. If we restricted the number of “at large” bids to about 18, that would include the top teams who had earned a spot into the field. It would also mean that most of those teams around #20 would have to give a full out effort to win their conference tournament, thereby increasing the urgency there. It would also allow for six rounds, just that the top 16 teams would only need to win five games. Of course, that would take away the dream that one day a 16 would beat a 1, but truly few of us lose sleep awaiting this opportunity.
If the regular season were given immediately more significance, a North Carolina-Kentucky game in December might have more meaning (and therefore, more viewers). A regular season which involves people watching more games, increases the tournament where most of us are just introducing ourselves to the teams. A tournament with fewer teams would also do little to take away the “Cinderella” stories and would eliminate the glut from the major conferences. A team that went .500 in the Big East would no longer be a shoe-in. And when has the insistence on excellence ever been a bad thing?