Now that my March Madness bracket has totally exploded, I have time to focus on the future of this remarkable communal event. Once again the tournament has featured spectacular upsets and last-second heroics. The NCAAs are the only truly pan-American sporting event, an Olympics of sport where every region of the country has local heroes in action. The play has been uniformly exceptional.
That does not mean that your college team has performed up to its abilities or potential. There is something about appearing in the tourney that understandably shakes these young men. Others demonstrate that they have more than enough ability to take their game "to another level." Others may show they should focus more on their books.
The blogosphere is filled with concerns about the possibility that the NCAA will enlarge the tournament to 96 teams instead of the present 65, including the one play-in contest. Opponents correctly report that we currently have many more than 65 teams playing post-season with the NIT and the Collegiate Basketball Invitational. We shouldn't worry about the fairness of leaving some good teams out. Good teams continue to play.
Others suggest that enlarging the tournament will dilute the quality of play. Too many Cinderellas! That should not be a problem. If the extra teams are as bad as some say, they will be sent home after the first round. Giving the very best teams a first round bye will address this concern.
Won't this mean the demise of the NIT and the CBI? That only matters if we now know they exist. Unless your favorite team is playing in one of those tournaments, they are not even on the public radar screen. How is your CBI bracket doing?
Doesn't enlarging the NCAA tournament mean the regular season is rendered meaningless? That is not the case if you follow conference play with wonderful rivalries established over the years. Conference tournaments are still terrific even if all the teams in the conference get to participate.
The issue is not whether good teams will be able to play post-season, but in what tournament will they play. The advantage of having all the good teams in one tournament is that they will be able to fight it out for the public's attention and acclaim. Currently, the best of the NIT-level teams do not get that chance to show their stuff against the better teams in the NCAA.
Some say that the strategy to enlarge the Madness is simply another NCAA grab for the bucks. An enlarged tournament field will certainly produce more television revenues for the Association and for the colleges. If the NCAA committed all these additional dollars to increasing college scholarship aid, it would prove its academic verities. It could also dedicate additional moneys to ensuring more college basketball players graduate.
When it votes to enlarge the field, the NCAA needs a clear reason other than "more." It should identify the class of college teams that would be invited to compete under the new format and why that would benefit the tournament. It should explain why this does not dilute the field. It should respond to the proposal made by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that schools with fewer than 40% graduation rate for its basketball athletes should not be allowed to participate. It should stand up for academics and athletics.
I would like to see an increase in the number of teams that would qualify for "the Dance." I have always been partial to the 1954 Indiana high school basketball tournament shown in Hoosiers. Milan triumphed over Muncie in the finals, the dream of every underdog squad. There were 751 teams in that tournament! I also want Gene Hackman to be my coach. He will take our team out on the Hinkle Fieldhouse floor and measure the height of the basketball goal. It is always exactly the same height as the goal in our tiny hometown gym.