Picking Splinters: Too Many Games Spoil the NCAA

It’s possible that some time in the near future, we’ll be sitting on the cusp of a Sunday in which 96 teams are selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament. It’s stupid. It’s unwieldy. But the possibility exists because, in short, there are people who think there is money being left on the table when it comes to the single greatest sports tournament in the world.

More games would mean more money going to the NCAA for television rights. More games would mean more commercials for networks to air. More games would mean more tickets and programs and souvenirs. Unfortunately it would also mean less of everything that makes the NCAA Tournament great.

More games would mean fewer good matchups in the early rounds. More games would allow even more mediocre major conference teams to crawl into the field. More games would practically completely devalue a regular season that teams already fill with gimme games against cupcake-caliber opponents. Seriously, would anyone pay to see more of that?

Think about it: A 96-team field would essentially incorporate the entire NIT field into the Big Dance. The worst teams for that tournament still need to be over .500, but what kind of measuring stick is that? Win more than you lose and you can play for the national championship? Talk about rewarding mediocrity. Even the college football bowl system, the bane of my sports-fan existence, doesn’t allow that to stand. Sure, schools can play in the Meineke Car Care bowl, but they simply collect their checks and go home afterwards. Now they’d be able to take on Alabama in a one-game playoff to see who advances in the tournament.

Back in the world of basketball, does this year’s 17-15 UConn squad deserve a shot to knock off Kansas? Particularly since they may actually do it. Remember that this Huskies team, that just got its doors blown off by 14-loss St. John’s, actually beat West Virginia and Villanova, so it has the talent to beat just about anyone in a one-game playoff. That’s why the Huskies shouldn’t be allowed in the same bracket as any team that actually did enough to earn a shot in the 64-team tourney.

Some would argue that 96 teams would just be more of a good thing. I guess that depends on your definition of good. Like UConn, North Carolina (16-15) and Arizona (16-14) would almost certainly be in the field. Frankly, I’d pay money to not have to watch those teams play another game. Both UConn and UNC both quit before the season was over. They rolled over when the season was still on the line, and UNC played dead against its biggest rival, Duke. And they’re worthy of a shot at the title? Please.

Analysts are having an impossible time deciding who should be in the tournament this year because the bottom of the so-called bubble is so bad. Heck, it’s so terrible that the Virginia Tech Hokies, whose 2009-10 opponents have included Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, the cast of “Golden Girls” and five cardboard cutouts of the Teletubbies are actually looking like locks. That’s the type of regular-season schedule we would see more of if we expanded the field to 96-teams. Why challenge yourself if you only need two wins against potential NCAA Tournament-caliber teams to get in the field?

The one reason the NCAA may not pursue this 96-team silliness is because it would completely expose the BCS’s opposition to a playoff as fraudulent. A 96-team tournament would last four weeks, keeping players out of class for almost a full month. The BCS says that one more week would be crippling to their students’ future. I can’t even type that last line while keeping a straight face, but apparently there are some who are so dedicated to athletes’ academic well-being that the idea of a student missing just two more classes is unfathomable. Should the March tournament expand the only argument against football playoffs concerning student well-being would go up in smoke.

Since the topic was first broached, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone in the media endorse the idea. And the voices I have heard, like ESPN’s Mike & Mike, have been loud in their opposition. But money talks too. And I suspect the number of bills generated by a 96-team tournament would turn the volume up, pretty loud. I guess we’ll find out to whom the NCAA really listens – its fans, or Benjamin Franklin’s 20 million identical twins.