The Double Bonus: More Is Less

We'll just have to bump this out a little wider...anybody got 11x17?

Remember, as is the somewhat-settled-upon standard, John S’s comments are in red and Tim’s are in black.

Earlier this week, Sports by Brooks reported that, according to sources, expanding the NCAA Tournament from 65 to 96 is “a done deal.” Sources have since denied that anything is final, but the NCAA is at least in serious talks about opting out of their current television contract with CBS and letting other networks, like Fox and ESPN, bid on the new tournament, which could be expanded as early as next year.

We should have known that this was coming as soon as Coach K endorsed it, particularly given the fact that more money is on the table with a larger tournament. The Coach K endorsement actually was pretty significant; before him, most of the support for expansion came from coaches of teams on the bubble—not exactly the most impartial sources. Even Jim Boeheim’s vocal support of the idea came in 2006, when his team was heading for a ninth-place finish in the Big East and needed a few miracles from Gerry McNamara to make the Tournament. But Duke has been on the bubble once in the last 14 years, so it’s hard to see Krzyzewski benefiting much from the expanded field.

Truthfully, it’s hard to see anyone besides the head coaches of bubble teams benefiting much from this—this is a colossally bad idea. Like, BCS bad.

For one, the NCAA Tournament, as it exists right now, is maybe the only perfect thing in sports. The NBA playoffs are too long; the MLB’s are too short; even the NFL playoffs just had a rather dull Divisional round, and always takes a mini-vacation before the Super Bowl. The BCS is the BCS. But everything about the way the college basketball season ends, from the start of the conference tournaments on, is great. The conference tournaments give regular-season Cinderellas a chance to see the Tournament. Selection Sunday provides us with loads of excitement and brackets to fill out. The first weekend is a regular onslaught of games, with upsets and great finishes, but it’s the second weekend that leads to the most classic games. Even the actual Final Four and championship game, which can seem more like a denouement than a climax, has given us games like the memorable Kansas-Memphis game in 2008, and the exciting UNC-Illinois match-up in 2005.

Expansion threatens of all of that. In the case of the tournament, bigger is not necessarily better. For one, there simply are not 96 deserving teams this year. As we discussed last week, this is yet another season with a weak bubble. Last year’s NIT winner was Penn State, a team that finished fifth in the Big Ten and lost in the second round of the conference tournament. Their best win of the regular season was an upset of Illinois in which 71 points were scored. Let me be clear: that’s combined. By both teams, together. Their best non-conference win was beating Georgia Tech, the worst team in the ACC, by two. Is that a team that we really need to see in the NCAA Tournament?

And that, presumably, is the 66th best team in the nation. Once you get down to 96, you’re looking at teams like Bowling Green and Weber State fighting for that last spot. It’s hard enough for passive fans to follow the NCAA Tournament now, but even most dedicated fans probably couldn’t name anyone on either of those squads.

Is it really an NCAA Tournament without CBI champion and 8-10 Pac-10 team, Oregon State?

Worse than that, though, is what expansion would do to the major conferences; namely, it would suck the excitement out of the regular season. A team like last year’s Kentucky—that went 8-8 in a down year for the SEC—would almost certainly be among the teams included with 31 more spots. This year, a team like UNC—struggling at the beginning of its conference schedule—would not have to worry all that much, because a .500 record in the ACC would likely be enough to make the Tournament anyway.

Some have said that the expanded Tournament would allow every conference’s regular-season winner, in addition to the conference tournament winner, get an automatic bid. This is another bad idea. For one, not every conference deserves two automatic bids, and if you give the regular-season winner an automatic bid, then you give that team an incentive to throw the conference tournament in order to get an additional bid for the conference.

The worst part of the plan, though, is how it would change the Tournament itself. With 96 teams, the top 32 would get a bye, meaning seeds 1-8 would not play in the opening round. Currently, the opening round of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most exciting events in sports. Every game is interesting: You watch the 1-3 seeds because you want to see how they play on the big stage (think of #2 Duke’s near-loss to Belmont in 2008); you watch the 4-6 seeds to see if they can avoid the upset (think of Vermont over Syracuse in 2005, or a dozen others); you watch the 7 vs. 10 game and 8 vs. 9 because they are so evenly matched (Davidson vs. Gonzaga in 2008, Siena vs. Ohio State in 2009).

Under a new structure, most of the teams people care about wouldn’t be playing, and the “upsets” wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. Instead of watching Bucknell try to knock off a traditional power like Kansas, they’d be facing a middling major conference school or another underdog. Is anyone going to be compelled this year by a Delaware State upset of Charlotte?

Adding an extra round not only adds a slate of less-interesting games to the schedule, but threatens the later rounds as well. The 12 vs. 5 game is typically so ripe for upsets, but if the 12-seed gets upset by the 20, then the odds of the 5-seed losing go way down. Even if the 12-seed does win, they face an even bigger disadvantage in the next game since they had to play an extra game. Expansion would make true upsets (a true upset coming against a team that has proven itself in the regular season and that fans know about, not simply a lower seed winning) less likely. You might as well take the cream out of Oreos.

As the Oscar nominations showed us earlier this week, expansion is not always a good thing. Adding more options is only worthwhile if it’s going to add excitement to proceedings, but in this case, it’s only going to make the NCAA Tournament longer, less interesting, and less egalitarian. So what do you think, Tim? Are there any redeeming aspects that I’ve overlooked?

Possible redeeming aspect: If it moves to ESPN, we wouldn’t be stuck with Jim Nantz calling the Final Four. Caveat: It’d probably be Shulman and Vitale doing it instead. In other words, pick your poison.*

*I love Shulman; Vitale, not so much.

No coach would have benefited more from expansion than Tommy Amaker.

Like you, John, I don’t see a single reason for this to happen. Most of the support for an expanded Tournament comes, as you say, from coaches who delude themselves into thinking it will help their job security, as if fan bases won’t notice how much easier it is to make a 96-team Tourney and thus be less excited about making a change. “Sure, Tommy Amaker’s never gotten us out of the first round, but come on, we’ve made the Tournament every year!” I don’t understand the financial argument from the networks’ side: Would you pay so much more money to air 31 more play-in games? Because that’s what these would be! The reason nobody watches the NIT isn’t that the games are meaningless (people do, after all, watch major college football bowls); it’s because the teams aren’t worth watching! Quick: Who did Penn State beat in the NIT Finals last year? I’ve stumped myself.

John, you know I love college basketball more than anyone. I get really excited for Bracket Buster Saturday, I know who the best teams are in the MEAC and SWAC, you don’t have to convince me to watch a college basketball game. But I doubt I’d be interested in an opening weekend where the BEST team playing is Siena (and even they would be playing someone like Morehead State).

You suck any drama out of the regular season and the conference tournaments. Right now, the most intriguing round of big-time conference tournaments is usually the quarterfinals, where bubble teams meet in play-out games (with the winner still in the hunt and the loser retaining virtually no chance at making the Dance). The 4-5 game in the Big Ten is almost always this kind of game. With a 96-team Tournament, these games wouldn’t exist outside of the Big East Tournament, where it would be something like #11 Providence against #14 South Florida. A 19-seed and a shot at Sun Belt heavyweight Western Kentucky is on the line!

The worst aspect of expansion is how it would destroy the so-called mid- and low-majors. Casual fans watch the Tournament on the off chance of seeing something magical, something that can’t happen in any other sport, something like Hampton beating Iowa State or Belmont giving Duke a run for its money. In an expanded Tournament, those things don’t happen anymore. A 15-seed in the current Tournament would be a 23 in an expanded one and earn a first-round berth with a 10-seed. Something tells me people wouldn’t have been as excited about a Hampton win over a mediocre Georgetown team that season. The “Cinderellas” of a 96-team Tournament will tend more toward season-long underachievers who turn it on in the postseason, like Arizona last season.*

*The reduced emphasis on the regular season will likely lead to more teams fitting this bill.

Furthermore, good mid-major teams (like aforementioned Western Kentucky) currently earn 12- and 13-seeds in the Tournament; if it expands, those teams will likely be seeded behind pedestrian teams from major conferences. WKU and Northern Iowa were on the 12-line with Arizona and Wisconsin—at-larges from power conferences—last season. In a 96-team Tourney, ‘Zona and ‘Sconsin probably stay as 12s while WKU and UNI are dipped down to 16- or 17-seeds, with teams like Penn State, Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati filling in between. All this leads to worse results for mid-major schools, who as 12s or 13s have an outside shot at the Sweet 16, but have little to no shot of taking down a No. 1.

John, I love college basketball. I live and breathe it in March. And even I’m against this.

Only in the Big Ten could a bubble team’s BEST WIN come in a game in which it scored 38 points! (I know it’s last year, but seriously…)

You Know How I Know the Pac-10 Sucks? Let’s have some fun with the Transitive Property: Cornell beat Harvard by 36, Harvard beat Seattle by 21, Seattle beat Oregon State by 51. Therefore, Cornell is 108 points better than Oregon State.

And if we know anything, it’s that the Transitive Property is infallible.

Speaking of the Big Red, let’s not anoint them the best team the Ivy League has ever seen. They’re good, but they’re not a season-long Top 10 team like Princeton in 1998,* let alone a Final Four team like Penn in ’79 or Bill Bradley’s Tigers in ’65.

*Everyone forgets this Princeton team. It went 27-2, beat top-25 teams in Texas and Wake Forest, and earned a 5-seed despite being eighth in the final AP poll of the regular season. The Tigers’ two losses came to No. 2 North Carolina—which went to the Final Four—and in the Tournament’s second round to fourth-seeded Michigan State—which lost to UNC in the Sweet 16 and would go to the Final Four the next three years.

Well, I think what we can say is that is that this is the best Ivy League team of the decade. They seem to get one good team every 10 years or so.

Without John Calipari, Derrick Rose would be searching for some PT with the NBDL's Tulsa 66ers.

One of the interesting things emerging from our discussion of John Wall a few weeks back is the idea that John Calipari churns out great NBA point guards. I’ll give you Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans is having a good rookie season for a bad NBA team, but who else are you pointing to? There were no guards of note at UMass, and Rose and Evans are the ONLY players at any position that have had successful NBA careers from his tenure at Memphis. If anything, you have to wonder why guys like DaJuan Wagner and Darius Washington, Jr.—big recruits and good college players—made barely a peep in the NBA. Overall, saying Calipari makes great point guards is as myopic as tuning into Duke at the turn of the century and marveling at the big men Mike Krzyzewski develops.

Yeah, I particularly remember Wagner as being a guy very much hyped at Memphis as a great potential pro, and he’s been a pretty big bust. You also have to question the logic of “developing” players who only stay for a year. John Wall and Derrick Rose were pretty great from day one; Tyreke Evans took a little while, but only because Calipari didn’t play him at the point immediately. It’s almost certainly more a question of Calipari, you know, cheating to get better recruits, and not how he develops his players. But I’m sure it’s going to play a role in recruiting, since once coaches get saddled with a certain recruiting reputation, recruits buy into it (see: the myth that Coach K doesn’t turn out good pros).

Yeah, it’s very annoying how important perception–even false perception–is in recruiting.

Can we just officially make the SEC West a mid-major? That division hasn’t turned out a contender since LSU in 2006 and hasn’t earned a No. 1 seed since 1999 (and even that was pretty fluky). This year, only Mississippi looks like a Tourney team, and the Rebels just lost to Arkansas…at HOME.

This just all reinforces my argument that, in this day and age, breaking conferences down along geographical lines is crazy. We should divide conferences up in a way that equalizes the level of competition—and give them awesome names, like the Thunder Conference!

You’ve been pushing that thing for years…

Let’s give some credit to the New Jersey Institute of Technology! After going 1-60 the last two seasons—yes, 1-60—the Highlanders have already nabbed seven wins in 20 games this year, including a 2-2 mark in the inaugural season of the Great West conference (which stretches from NJIT in the east to Chicago State in the north to Houston Baptist in the south to Utah Valley State in the west. It’s the coolest conference ever.) (Yeah, because it’s not bound by geography!)

This is all to say: The NJIT Highlanders have more wins than the New Jersey Nets.

Are they the best team in New Jersey?

Umm…have you seen St. Patrick’s High?

Game of the Week: Some big Top 10 games this week, with Nova taking a pair of road trips to Georgetown and West Virginia and Purdue visiting Michigan State. Even after GTown throttled Duke but fell back to Earth against South Florida, so I stand by what I said last week: The Hoyas will not survive the Tournament’s first weekend (provided it’s still a 65-team Tournament). I like the Mountaineers more as a Tournament team than a regular-season one, and the Boilers can pull off a much-needed road win in the Big Ten race if Kalin Lucas isn’t 100%.

And of yeah, Duke goes to Carolina on Wednesday. If we lose that one, we’ll have some egg on our face.

If Duke doesn’t win that one, it doesn’t look good for the one after that, since the Tar Heels own us in Cameron now…

I can't think of a better Dominique to ever lace 'em up.

In our initial draft, I wondered how many Big East wins USF needed to make Dominique Jones a viable candidate for conference player of the year. But after the Bulls’ win in DC last night, they’re now legitimately on that soft bubble and Jones has to be in the conversation not only for Big East POY but for All-American status. He Devan Downey’d the Hoyas in the second half, and he’s gone for 46, 28, 37, and 29 in his last four games without USF’s second-best player in Gus Gilchrist. The Bulls are 5-5 in conference and only one of their last eight games (at Villanova) is unwinnable. If they can steal a road win at either Marquette or Notre Dame, win at DePaul, and hold serve at home (Cincy, St. John’s, Providence, UConn), they can get to 11-7 in conference and an at-large berth. Tremendous job by Stan Heath in Tampa.

It might be too early to say, but a three-man booth of Lundquist, Kellogg, and Obama could challenge McDonough, Raftery, and Bilas for the best in the game. Provided Verne and Clark get used to being star-struck the whole time.

The whole Obama-in-the-booth thing made me realize: Remember when Bush was president and there was the whole “average Americans can see themselves having a beer with him” thing that liberals thought was irredeemably stupid? Well, I feel that way about Obama. Just when I’m about to give up on the guy, he checks in with Verne and Clark and I fall in love all over again.

What I’m Not Excited For: John, how much you want to bet Mike Krzyzewski complains endlessly about playing Thursday night and Saturday afternoon? Part of me wants Duke to lose at BC just to hear him blame it exclusively on short rest, even though one day in-between games is what you get in the NCAA Tournament.

Well, what’s important isn’t that it’s what you get in the Tournament (although Coach K clearly thinks the NCAA should follow the MLB’s lead, and increase off days by 500% in the postseason), but that some conferences do that every week. God forbid, though, that Duke might have to play by the same rules as the rest of the country!

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One response to this post.

  1. […] Despite great ratings for this year’s championship game, CBS was apparently considering paying ESPN to take the NCAA Tournament off its hands. NPI is just happy they didn’t expand all the way to 96 teams. […]

    Reply

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