Jim Boeheim wants his Syracuse Orange to make the NCAA Tournament every year, whether they really deserve it or not. He’s never said that, of course, but that’s the impression I get every time the ‘Cuse coach opens his mouth and petitions for Tournament expansion.
Supporters of expanding the field from 65 to 68, 96, or whatever feel that too many “quality” teams are being left out of the field. Boeheim says this all the time. However, as was discussed in my interview with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, the real purpose of the Tournament is to crown a national champion. For smaller schools, simply making the Big Dance is a great thrill and accomplishment, which is why I am in favor of automatic bids going to all conference tournament champions. But adding more teams and more games will make it harder for the best team to win it all.
As Bilas told me, if you expand the Tourney, “you devalue the regular season even more and you devalue the results of conference tournaments. Making the NCAA Tournament is no longer as special as it was.” Boeheim and others feel too many “deserving” teams are left out. Guess what? In a field with 34 at-large bids, if you didn’t make it in you’re not all that deserving.
My hunch regarding the BCS conference coaches who favor expansion is that they are looking out for themselves. How many more mid-majors would get bids if the field was expanded? My guess is only a few, while the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, and other powers regularly snatched up 8-10 bids per league.
To investigate this further, I contacted all 10 head coaches in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a one-bid league that is currently 15th in the conference RPI rankings. Would a 96-team field mean two or three MAAC schools got in? Does it even matter to the MAAC coaches? Some responses were mixed, but overall the feedback shows a slight preference for keeping the Tournament the way it is: five coaches voted against expansion; three were in favor of it; and two, Siena’s Fran McCaffery and Marist’s Chuck Martin, did not provide a comment.
Iona head coach Kevin Willard believes that if there was expansion, the committee would pit the mid-majors against each other in the opening round play-in games. “You would lose a lot of the luster of the tournament that way, you lose the Cinderella stories. You would have little chance of those great tournament upsets,” he said. He added that if the Tourney expanded without a play-in round, then it would be much fairer and could be a good thing for mid-majors.
Saint Peter’s John Dunne and Rider’s Tommy Dempsey had nearly identical responses, each referring to the Tournament as one of the best sporting events in the country and believing that expansion would mean more BCS schools, not MAAC schools, make the field.
“If it gets us in the tournament, I’d like to see them expand it to 196 if need be,” joked Tom Parrotta of Canisius, before revealing his true feelings: the Tournament has the right amount of teams as is. “I think adding more teams would potentially water down the event.”
Manhattan’s Barry Rohrssen rounds out the group against expansion. While he can see some benefits of including more participants, he feels “the present format seems to really provide the most excitement. It has been a success in the way it is currently structured.”
On the other side of the fence are Ed Cooley of Fairfield and Jimmy Patsos of Loyola (MD), both in favor of expansion. “With the growth of Division I basketball,” said Cooley, “I think expansion would give more young men (the opportunity) to play on that national stage.” Hard to argue with that, though if the field expands too much, the stage for those early-round games but might not be all that important.
Niagara’s Joe Mihalich would be OK with expansion, but just a little. He made it very clear that he is against anything past 68 teams. Here’s how it would play out: “This would mean a play-in game in each of the four regions,” Mihalich explained. “The play-in games should involve the final eight at-large teams.” He suggested these play-in winners be seeded 11 or 12 and was adamant that no conference tournament champions were forced to participate in these play-in games.
While a few MAAC coaches are in favor of expansion, more prefer to adhere to the well-known saying: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As Bilas, some of the coaches, and I have alluded to, the significance of simply making the Tournament would be reduced if the field were expanded. Coaches right now are sometimes fired for not making the Big Dance. In a 96-team field, they’d instead be fired for not making it to the second weekend.
As it stands — and hopefully as it willstand — those final bubble teams left out of the field, whether they hail from the Big East, MAAC, or Mountain West, will have to accept their bid to another postseason tournament and hope to improve their resumes the following season.