Commentary

Don't expand the NCAA tournament

Updated: March 29, 2011, 1:37 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Pardon me if I'm not reveling in VCU's feel-good story.

[+] EnlargeVCU Celebration
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireEveryone loves an upset. Everyone loves a Cinderella. But a run like VCU's doesn't mean more teams should be in the NCAA tournament.

It's nothing personal against VCU. I'm not at all discrediting the Rams' surreal and improbable Final Four run, but I was among those who didn't want VCU in the NCAA tournament at all.

I'm disheartened by VCU's run because I know us -- the fans, the media, those who make important sports decisions. We live in a prisoner-of-the-moment, knee-jerk sports society that reacts emotionally, instead of wisely.

The downside to the Rams' historic run is that it's creating a persuasive argument to expand the NCAA tournament field. And my fear is once the tournament concludes, we'll hear a louder call for a 96-team field.

I understand the temptation to expand beyond 68 teams. The NCAA tournament is the best postseason of all the major sports. We've become highly addicted to the theater, and even salivate over the bracket detonation that comes along with having a team like VCU make a deep tournament run.

Several NCAA coaches are on record that they support expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams. Before the NCAA Board of Directors decided to expand the field last year, Villanova coach Jay Wright said, "If you look at college football, close to 50 percent of the teams go to bowl games. I think there's so many good teams that don't go to the tournament. … I don't think it will affect the regular season at all."

Of course the coaches are in favor of an expanded field. They have everything to gain from it, including, in some cases, bonus money for making the tournament. And naturally the players would want a larger field since it statistically gives them a much better chance of being included in the March Madness delirium.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSome coaches, including Jay Wright, have applauded NCAA tournament expansion ideas.

But we've got a bad habit in this country of believing the more we have of something, the better it is. It's why a lot of us drive sport utility vehicles that could moonlight as naval ships. It's why when we go to the movies, concession workers remind us that we could get a tub of popcorn the size of Yellowstone Park for just 50 cents extra. It's why we can't resist buying 10 boxes of cereal for $5, knowing that we haven't gone through a full box of cereal since we were 10 years old.

Sports, like life, has become about volume. We thirst for more (all the while complaining that games or seasons or playoffs are watered down and not as good as they were in the past). It's why the NBA no longer has five-game series in the playoffs, why there are NHL franchises in the South, why the NFL has regular-season games in London, why the Major League Baseball playoffs barely end before the first day of winter, and why the NFL owners know that, regardless of any initial push-back, eventually everyone will accept an 18-game NFL regular season.

I'm not against expansion in sports. I'm not against modernizing old ideas. I don't want to go back to the days when the NCAA tournament field could fit into a kindergarten classroom. I like the NFL's 16-game schedule. I'm against the NBA contracting teams and fully appreciate how basketball has become a worldwide sport.

But VCU's making the Final Four doesn't change the fact that this year's "First Four" tournament games were largely irrelevant, and for most of us, the tournament didn't really start until Thursday. It doesn't change the fact that added teams and games add randomness and surprise losses that can result in the best teams being eliminated before the Final Four. We love the upsets before the tournament, but the ratings have shown in the past that we aren't as enthused about surprises when it's time for the championship to be decided.

The additional tournament games drew ratings that were no better than the play-in games in previous years. From 2007 to 2010, the play-in game drew a average 0.8 rating. This year, the highest-rated game was between UAB and Clemson, which drew a 0.9 (1.354 million viewers).

[+] EnlargePopcorn
Stephen Chernin/Getty ImagesIt is possible to get too much popcorn (unless you're Crazy Legs Conti).

Granted, the NCAA has been vague about any expansion plans. NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen recently told The Associated Press that tournament expansion wasn't at the forefront of the board's agenda, but it was an issue that was always in play.

With the NCAA in the midst of a 14-year, $10.8 billion television partnership with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting, expansion would be an apparent way to maximize the games available to TV for such a financial windfall. And now that mid-majors can be counted on to mount a charge in the tournament, the case for expansion is that much stronger.

This isn't to say I would prefer not to see teams like VCU in the Final Four if it meant enlarging the field. If anything, what I'm advocating protects the specialness of VCU's run.

Let's stop obsessing with making everything bigger. Let's be more concerned with making it better.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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