Veteran ACC sportswriter Al Featherston has had enough with college coaches complaining about being left out of the NCAA Tournament and/or arguing in favor of an expanded 68 teams? 96? 128? NCAA field.
In recent years, Maryland's Gary Williams, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, among other coaches, have called for the NCAA to revisit the idea of expanding its signature event.
"There are 8,000 bowl games where kids get a chance to participate in a bowl and have that as a crowning moment in their athletic career," Greenberg said. "Why wouldn't you expand the NCAA Tournament and give more young kids the opportunity to have that kind of experience?"
The expansion idea certainly is nothing new. After all, the Big Dance hasn't always been this big. It previously has grown from eight teams (1939-50) to 16 (1951-52) to 22-25 (1953-74) to 32 (1975-78) to 40 (1979) to 48 (1980-82) to 52 (1983) to 53 (1984) to 64 (1985-2000) to 65 (2001-present).
More expansion? Featherston, who offers his first-person response to the push for a bigger NCAA Tournament below, says reduction is the better idea.
By Al Featherston
March 28, 2008
Believe it or not, there is a group of baseball fans who advocate the induction of former Baltimore first baseman John "Boog" Powell into baseball's Hall of Fame.
Their argument goes something like this: If former New York Giants first baseman George "Highpockets" Kelly is in the Hall of Fame, then Powell who was a similar, but superior, player deserves to be in, too.
They are correct that, in the context of their times, Powell was a much better player than Kelly. In 17 seasons, Boog recorded 1,776 hits, 339 home runs, 1,187 RBI and a career OPS of .823. In 16 seasons, Highpockets recorded 1,778 hits, 148 home runs, 1,020 RBI and a career OPS of .784.
When you throw in the fact that Powell played in the toughest offensive era since the dead ball, while Kelly played most of his career in the greatest offensive era ever, it looks like a no-brainer: Powell deserves a spot in the Hall.
But baseball historian Bill James, among others, has pointed out the flaw in the pro-Powell argument. It does not prove that Powell belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that Kelly doesn't belong. Highpockets got in at a time when the veterans committee was loaded with his cronies from the John McGraw era.
That's the trouble with so many Hall of Fame debates. Because a number of unworthy candidates were admitted, they became the standard by which later candidates were judged. James calls it "The Lowest Common Denominator" argument. Every time you admit an undeserving candidate, it lowers the bar for the next generation of borderline choices.
LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR
So, how does that apply to the NCAA Tournament?
James' "Lowest Common Denominator" rule came to mind on Selection Sunday, when the talking heads on ESPN and CBS were debating the composition of the field.
Watching side-by-side comparisons among the last few at-large teams that did make the field and the teams that barely missed inclusion looked surprisingly like the Powell-Kelly debate.
Villanova or Virginia Tech? South Alabama or Arizona State? Baylor or Syracuse?
On the surface, those were hot topics on which reasonable people could reasonably disagree. When you compared résumés, there was little to choose from among the three bubble teams that got in (Villanova, South Alabama, Baylor) and the three that did not (Virginia Tech, Arizona State, Syracuse). It was easy to understand and sympathize with coaches such as Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech and Herb Sendek at Arizona State when they complained about the process.
But James might suggest that the debate didn't prove that Tech, ASU and Syracuse deserved to be in the field as much as it demonstrated that Villanova, Baylor and South Alabama didn't belong in the field.
Of course, the committee had to fill the 65-team bracket, so somebody deserving or not had to take those last few at-large spots.
But as you watch the NCAA Tournament continue to unfold and you should be enjoying the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight as you read this stop and ponder this: Just how much did the last few at-large teams bring to the table?
None of them is going to win the NCAA Tournament anyway.
Many college basketball fans think of N.C. State in 1983 as a great Cinderella story and that team certainly was but the Cardiac Pack was not a borderline at-large team. The Wolfpack was a No. 6 seed and earned its bid by winning the ACC Tournament. Kansas in 1988, with Danny Manning and the Miracles, also was a No. 6 seed.
The lowest seed to win the NCAA title was Villanova in 1985, and the Wildcats were a No. 8 seed. In the 20 seasons since the NCAA began seeding the field, just two double-digit seeds have reached the Final Four No. 11 LSU in 1986 and No. 11 George Mason in 2006.
Can anybody out there suggest a potential national championship team that got left out of the field in the modern era (since 1985)? Go over the lists of NIT champions since 1985 and try to find one that might have made the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, or even the Sweet 16.
Look at this year's tournament. In most years, it's safe to predict that by the time the Sweet 16 arrives, there won't be more than one or two double-digit seeds left. And the odds are overwhelming that they'll be gone by the Final Four.
The field is not only big enough to find a true national champion. In a sense, it's too big. History suggests that the NCAA could stop at 32 teams (provided they were all at-large teams) and not miss a potential champ. Want to be safe? Go to 48 teams, which would get you to the No. 12 seeds, or one beyond the highest seed ever to reach a Final Four.
The point is that the debate on Selection Sunday, given the context of modern history, should not have been about deserving teams left out of the field, but about undeserving teams that got in.
SOME TOUCHY-FEELY ARGUMENTS
The second-dumbest thing uttered on Selection Sunday was Greenberg's little speech about the welfare of the student-athlete and how that consideration should cause the NCAA to expand its field.
"If the NCAA is truly concerned about student-athlete welfare we hear that all the time," the Virginia Tech coach told a panel of ESPN commentators. "There are 8,000 bowl games where kids get a chance to participate in a bowl and have that as a crowning moment in their athletic career. Why wouldn't you expand the NCAA Tournament and give more young kids the opportunity to have that kind of experience?"
Gee, Seth, then we can let everybody in, and every single college basketball player can strut around with his chest out and say, "I played in the NCAA Tournament." Better yet, don't play any NCAA games; we wouldn't want any of those poor, sensitive student-athletes to lose and feel bad about themselves. No, just declare all 341 Division I teams as co-champions, and everybody can celebrate!
Sendek, formerly of N.C. State, made a pitch similar to Greenberg's during his time with the Wolfpack. His last five NCSU teams made the Big Dance. This year his ASU team was among those that barely missed the field.
"Why not give more student-athletes the opportunity to participate in one of the greatest sporting events on earth, and let them feel good about their seasons?" Sendek said in 2005. "Each year, no matter how you do it, teams that have really good seasons don't make the cut. Which teams deserve in at the end, a lot of times it comes down to very difficult choices and personal preferences."
Seriously, the touchy-feely arguments for expansion by Greenberg and Sendek are flawed on a number of levels.
Take Greenberg's analogy comparing the NCAA Tournament to the multitude of bowl games. The coach was exaggerating a little bit when he talked about "8,000 bowls," but he was right that a far larger percentage of Division I-A football teams participate in bowls (about 41 percent) than the percentage of Division I basketball teams that are invited to the NCAA Tournament (just over 19 percent).
"Then the sad thing is, if you don't make the NCAA Tournament and you make the NIT, people look at that like you have a disease," Greenberg said. "If you make the Bee Pollen Weed Eater Sheraton Universal Hawaii Bowl, it's a reason to celebrate. It's a lot harder to make the NIT."
The problem is equating the NCAA Tournament with the multitude of bowl games. Is playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the MPC Computers Bowl the same as playing in the NCAA playoffs? The truth is that just one or (maybe in rare years) two bowl games have any national championship significance. Compared to that, every NCAA Tournament game leads to the determination of a national champion.
That means 2-4 football teams per year are allowed to compete for the title, while 65 basketball teams get that chance.
A better comparison for all of the meaningless bowls is the meaningless NIT (32 teams), or the even more meaningless College Basketball Invitational (16 teams). This season, the ACC sent Florida State, Maryland and Virginia Tech to the NIT. Virginia played in the CBI.
With North Carolina, Duke, Clemson and Miami in the NCAA Tournament, a full two-thirds of the ACC's membership played in the postseason. That's a pretty strong parallel to how it typically works in football.
Greenberg wanted a bowl experience for his kids? Well, his Hokies' participation in the NIT wasn't so very different than playing at a bowl game in Charlotte or Boise, was it?
Forgive those who don't cry for the poor student-athletes whose feelings are hurt by their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament. Everyone should hope that Greenberg's kids don't have damaged psyches.
One might even hope that Tech junior A.D. Vassallo would respond to the NCAA's rejection by getting all of the team's underclassmen together and saying something like, "OK, they stuck it to us this season. Well, we're going to work our butts off in the offseason, and then we're going to come out next year and stick their bubble where the ESPN cameras never go!"
Clemson took that approach this season, after being relegated to the NIT for three straight years, and it worked quite well for the Tigers.
In truth, it's easy to suspect that the frequent whining by coaches for expansion has less to do with student-athlete welfare than it has to do with their own job security.
Asked about the possibility of a 68-team NCAA Tournament field, with four play-in games (rather than the one in the current format), Miami coach Frank Haith thought first in terms of self-preservation for those in his profession.
"You'd probably have four more teams where coaches save their jobs," Haith said. "That's probably the measuring stick, getting your team to the NCAA Tournament. (By expanding to 68), you might make four coaches happier."
It's interesting that most of the calls for expansion come from major college coaches who want more mid-level teams from the power conferences invited.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, left out of the field in each of the last two seasons, suggested that it would be easy to add three more teams and play four play-in games instead of just one.
Of course, Boeheim knows that his Orange would never have been asked to appear in one of those demeaning play-in games. No, that's for the little guys, the champions of the SWAC or the Atlantic Sun or the MEAC. Let them play an extra game to make room for mediocre BCS-conference teams such as Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Arizona State.
No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But you cannot overestimate how much it means for the kids from those tiny schools schools that almost never get any TV exposure to play a real NCAA Tournament game against the teams they see Dick Vitale screaming about all season the North Carolinas, the Dukes or the UCLAs.
For kids at schools such as Mississippi Valley State or Oakland or Delaware State, that's a real student-athlete experience. Did Greenberg's team, with its one top-50 win this year, have a better claim to that experience?
KNIGHT PRESENTS 128-TEAM FIELD
Greenberg's argument for expansion was lame, but it came nowhere near the stupidity of Bob Knight's latest plan.
The Hall of Fame coach-turned-ESPN commentator suggested on Selection Sunday that the way to end all of the debates was to expand the field to 128 teams.
"Let's have 128 teams in the tournament," Knight said. "Then it'd be hard not to get the best 64 teams."
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has said that, in his perfect world, he would go beyond 128 teams. But he admits that might not be practical.
"To be honest, if you ask me, I'd do it like (at the high school level) Indiana basketball used to do it and Kentucky basketball used to do it," Hamilton said. "The (regular) season's over, and everyone has a chance to compete. That might not be in the realm of possibility, but I do feel we could double it."
Knight's idea, even at 128, is more radical. The General wants to eliminate automatic bids and simply pick the best 128 teams. He suggested that the first round of the tournament would be played on the home courts of the top 64 teams.
On this topic, Knight is to borrow the words Greenberg used to describe those who left the Hokies out of this year's NCAA field certifiably insane.
In the first place, expanding the field is not going to diminish the debate over selection. It doesn't matter where you draw the line. If you pick 32 teams, you'll have to hear the whining from No. 33 and No. 34. If you pick 48, then No. 49 and No. 50 will scream bloody murder. At 65, you already have a chorus of cries from 66-70.
Go to 128 teams, and you'll be arguing about whether 18-12 Georgia Southern or 19-12 UNC Greensboro deserves a bid. In fact, let's take a look at the 2008 RPI numbers and see where the committee might draw the line:
- New Mexico State 20-14
- UNC Greensboro 19-12
- UNC Wilmington 20-13
- Virginia 15-15
- Indiana State 14-16
- Old Dominion 17-15
- Duquesne 17-13
- Northern Iowa 17-14
- Georgia Southern 18-12
- Boston College 14-17
Do any of those teams need to be in the field to make it legit? Do any of them deserve to be in the field? How much reward does mediocrity deserve?
A quick look at the five teams on either side of Knight's proposed line raises another major issue: Do teams with losing records deserve consideration? If you go to "the best" 128, there's no doubt that you will include some losers.
Georgia Tech finished two games under .500 but ended up as the No. 67 RPI team. If Knight's criterion is to choose the 128 best teams, then the Yellow Jackets belong. So does N.C. State, 15-16 and No. 103 in the RPI.
Does anyone really need to see N.C. State in the field? Should the NCAA really put that dysfunctional collection of kids through another game?
Knight's proposal actually would add to the post-selection hysteria, since he draws not one but two lines. Once everyone got through debating whether Boston College should get in at 14-17, they would move on to the debate about home games. Who gets the home game between No. 64 RPI Stephen F. Austin (22-5) and No. 65 Cornell (21-5 but champions of the Ivy)? What about between No. 63 Cleveland State and No. 66 Siena?
If you went strictly by the RPI, then No. 71 Florida would have to travel all the way across the country to play at No. 59 New Mexico, while No. 73 Nevada would be flying halfway across the continent to meet No. 57 Kentucky. Can you imagine the travel nightmares that would arise? Or is the committee supposed to finagle the matchups to assure a little geographic sanity?
More importantly, how would the American public react to Knight's New Order? Is bigger really better? Will the fans still salivate over the Ides of March and fill out their engorged brackets? Will they still make the NCAA Tournament the second-biggest event on the sports calendar, behind only the Super Bowl?
"I just don't think you mess around with a formula that has produced this level of success," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It should be tough to get in."
PRESERVING NCAA'S GOLDEN EGG
The NCAA Tournament is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
The three-week-long basketball event is the NCAA's biggest money-maker, by a lot. Funds from the tournament pay the bulk of the organization's budget. There's no pressure to create a football playoff as long as basketball is carrying the NCAA on its broad back.
The modern 64/65-team NCAA Tournament is truly the goose that lays the NCAA's golden egg every March.
Given the facts, should NCAA officials really tamper with it? Everyone remembers what happened to that apocryphal goose in the fairy tale, right?
Perhaps the NCAA already has stumbled onto the perfect postseason formula. The current field is a mix of 31 conference champions with the accompanying automatic bids ranging from heavyweights such as UNC, Kansas and UCLA down to the true Cinderellas such as Coppin State, Mt. St. Mary's and Maryland-
Baltimore County and 34 at-large teams, mostly (28 of 34 in each of the last two seasons) from the major conferences.
Both elements are important to the magic that is March Madness.
The no-name schools from the little conferences give the tournament its national flavor. They are like the yeast in a loaf of bread. They bring in fans who aren't gamblers or college basketball fanatics. Those fans often delight to learn that UMBC's nickname is "the Retrievers," or that the bowtie is cherished at Mt. St. Mary's in honor of former coach Jim Phelan.
Those casual fans pull for the underdogs and almost always are rewarded with a spectacular upset or two. Maybe there's not a No. 16 beating a No. 1, but as you read this, you probably can recall a bracket-wrecking surprise that took place on that opening weekend this year.
By the second weekend, the big boys usually have taken over. That's when the field gets down to really determining the national champion. Because of its one-loss-and-you're-out format, the NCAA Tournament doesn't always crown the best team, but it produces the greatest drama. A very good team will be crowned in San Antonio maybe not the best team, but one that has to be pretty darn good to survive six rounds of sudden death.
Should NCAA officials really want to change that formula?
Back in the summer of 2006, I wrote an article for the ACC Sports Journal proposing an expansion of at-large teams that would not punish the small schools. I proposed that we expand to 72 teams and allow the bottom 16 at-large teams to play their way in. The winners would be seeded on the No. 8 and No. 9 lines, where they would face another play-in winner in the first round. The No. 1 seeds would get the survivors in the second round.
It's a workable plan and fairer than most I've seen proposed but I'd rather not see it implemented. In fact, if I were the czar of college basketball, what I'd do is put a 64-team upper limit on the field (eliminating one at-large team to get rid of the shameful play-in game). Then I'd allow the committee to cap the field where it can best draw the line.
For instance, maybe this year's committee could have selected just 60 teams. Baylor, South Alabama, St. Mary's and St. Joseph's wouldn't have been missed. Then we could give the No. 1 seeds a bye and let the No. 16s play the No. 2 seeds. That way, maybe they'd have a chance to finally get a win. There might be another year where the committee finds 64 worthy teams, or 58, or maybe just 48.
Yet as much as I like that plan, it almost certainly would be better for the NCAA to stick to its current format. It's the tournament the public loves and goes nuts over every March. It's big enough. Teams already have two clear paths to make the field. They can play well enough over the three months of the regular season to establish themselves as at-large entries, or they can use their conference tournament as a way to play themselves in with one hot weekend.
How many more chances do they need?
Leave the NCAA Tournament alone.
If you're going to tweak it at all, tweak the process, not the format.
Krzyzewski recently suggested that the selection committee members all administrators, but not necessarily basketball people invite a number of former coaches to form a non-voting advisory committee to assist them in their deliberations. Currently, members receive input from coaches, but it's very sporadic. Have the committee in Indianapolis during the selection process, and call on them to advise on the tough calls.
It's a good idea. Of course, those left out still would scream and cry when the field is announced. Don't be afraid of that; it's going to happen whether the field is 65 teams, 72 teams, 128 teams or 256 teams. The only way to stifle the whining is to let everybody in, but if you do that, where's the "special" experience that Greenberg wants for his student-athletes?
The NCAA Tournament is fine as it is. Changing it because it was tough to choose between Arizona and Arizona State this season would make about as much sense as it would for the Hall of Fame to compound its George Kelly mistake by admitting Boog Powell, too.
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 38 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the 2007 release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.