The Biggest Threat to the NCAA Tourney
The first 12 National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball championship teams (1939-1950) had to win only three games in the eight-team-field tournament to take the crown.
Then came the first of a long series of expansions of the NCAA tourney field when it was doubled to 16 teams in 1951. Coach Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky maintained its position as the dynasty of that era by going 4-0 in that new format for the third of Rupp’s four NCAA national championships with his Wildcats.
Two years later the field was increased to 22 teams. It then fluctuated from 22 to 25 teams until being set at 32 in 1975, which was the final year of the greatest dynasty in the history of NCAA men’s basketball. That was the year that coach John Wooden’s UCLA team won its 10th NCAA crown in a period of just 12 seasons.
Wooden announced his retirement during a post-game press conference after UCLA beat Louisville, 75-74, in an exciting semifinal overtime game in San Diego. Two nights later, the Bruins took their 10th title under Wooden by beating Kentucky, 92-85. Joe B. Hall was in his third season as the Kentucky coach, having replaced Rupp, who retired after the 1971-72 season.
That 1975 championship also marked the only time UCLA had to win five games in the tournament under Wooden. Each of the previous UCLA titles under the Wizard of Westwood came after four victories in the tournament. UCLA always received a first-round bye until the field grew to 32 teams, which allowed for no byes.
But as the years went by the field grew more and more, stepping up to 40 in 1979, 48 in 1980, 52 in 1983 and 53 in 1984. First-round byes were once again part of the tournament.
Finally, the NCAA settled on 64 teams in 1985, putting an end to any more first-round byes and establishing once and for all the solid and very popular tradition of what is known as March Madness or the Big Dance. An unnecessary 65th team was added in 2001 so that the last two seeded teams in the entire field now meet in a “play-in” game for the 64th and final spot each year.
The championship team must win six tournament games for the crown or seven if it is the team seeded either 64th or 65th.
For all of the ugliness and repeated corruption that have been constants throughout the history of intercollegiate athletics, these three NCAA basketball tournament weekends each spring captivate the nation as much as the National Football League playoffs and Super Bowl or Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series.
In some locales such as Kentucky or upstate New York or Kansas or Durham, this year’s NCAA tournament and Final Four might be more interesting than any old Super Bowl game ever was.
March Madness, with its Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four, has become part of our sports culture over the last half-century. Most fans might agree with me that the NCAA basketball tournament is just the right size and three weekends of that event fit nicely into our lives each year.
Television is largely responsible for boosting the national popularity of the NCAA basketball tournament to the point that makes it one of those three biggest annual sports events in our nation. But in so doing, television (CBS at present) is paying out such huge gobs of money to the NCAA and its member institutions that take part in the tournament that every one of the 347 Division I basketball colleges wants a piece of the action.
So now there is a threat to that excellent tournament. It is known as greed.
There is a growing desire among some college and university administrators and coaches to expand the field to 96 teams. This would be a terrible mistake. It would only be the result of a grab for more money. And it would not end at 96 teams. Within a short time the field would have to be blown up to 128 teams.
It has always puzzled me why college administrators who are mentors and teachers to our treasured youth act so foolishly so often. But then they are, after all, among those who taught the men and women who have gone on to become the world’s champions at Wall Street greed and visited the current economic woes upon us all.
Can’t these college executives see that they have a wonderfully successful basketball package worth billions of dollars over the long haul? It is a springtime exercise in the joyful excitement of intercollegiate athletics, even though these colleges are making buckets of money by using free labor in the form of their “student-athletes.”
To enlarge the tournament would be to go toward a state of boredom. Too much of a good thing will drive people away. Four weekends would absolutely tire out many fans who are not far from that now when you consider the many conference tournaments that immediately precede the NCAA championship tournament.
When the NCAA tournament began in 1939 and throughout its first 40 years or so, there were numerous independent teams such as Notre Dame, Houston, St. Bonaventure, Seattle, Syracuse, Boston College, etc. Then the NCAA established the automatic bid for any conference champion when the field grew to over 50 teams in the 1970s and 64 in the 1980s.
So all colleges either joined an existing conference or formed new conferences such as the Big East, the Atlantic Ten, Conference USA, etc. Now there are no independent basketball teams and each tournament entry belongs to one of the 32 Division I basketball conferences.
Since these conferences all share the wealth among their members, most every college in major basketball is already getting a piece of the TV and gate receipts from the NCAA basketball tournament. Apparently, they all want even more.
If the NCAA tournament steps up to 96 teams, we would go back to first-round byes once again. And this time there would be 32 byes.
It would not take long for all of the 33rd and 34th seeded teams to yell long and hard for the elimination of those byes. That would result in another expansion to 128 teams. In that case the championship would go to the team that could win seven NCAA tournament games. Any team seeded 33rd or lower would also have to win seven games in order to take the title in a 96-team tourney field.
My biggest objection to any such expansion is two-fold. First of all, the field would include 32 mediocre to poor teams that now make up the field for the largely watered-down National Invitation Tournament. Also, that once grand NIT would probably die out if it was forced to invite teams ranked 100 and lower in college basketball.
I had the pleasure of covering every one of John Wooden’s UCLA championships. And I believe his Bruins of the 1960s and 1970s with players such as Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Lynn Shackelford, Lucius Allen, Steve Patterson, Sidney Wicks, Henry Bibby, Bill Walton, Richard Washington et al could win six, seven or however many games it took to win the title.
But I do not want to see any team have to win more than the current six tournament games in order to be champion. The NCAA tourney should be at 64 teams, which is just the correct size for March Madness. Don’t mess with a winner!
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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