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It would be crazy to mess with March Madness

Wed., Feb. 10, 2010

Saint Mary’s – Alydar to Gonzaga’s Affirmed, Pepsi to its Coke – visits town Thursday on a college basketball mission that’s urgent, if not quite desperate.

The Gaels have the look of an NCAA tournament team but lack the defining victory to make it a certainty. Yes, there is always that last roll of the dice in Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference Tournament title and the automatic berth that goes with it, but Saint Mary’s can hedge that bet by beating Gonzaga before then – in one of those games that add delight and drama to college basketball’s regular season.

One of those games that would be reduced to a shrug if the NCAA entertains the deplorable notion of expanding its tournament to 96 teams.

What’s next – “The Godfather, Part IV?” Condos along the fairways at Indian Canyon? World Series games in November?

Really, it’s no surprise that Expansion Madness is starting to pick up steam. Any number of coaches whose teams were passed over in recent years – we’re looking at you, Jim Boeheim – have been beating the drum, and an opportunity for the NCAA to opt out of its television deal with CBS for something bigger and better has cranked up the volume.

Somebody out there smells money. Somebody else smells better job security

Well, it smells all right.

Here we have the single American sporting event that has reached a happy détente between achievement (all those high seeds) and egalitarianism (even the champion of the Big Sky Conference gets to play), with a building plotline stretched out over a not-too-long, not-too-sudden three weekends. It’s symmetrical – no byes, even for the royalty. It produces just enough charming upsets and yet always manages to crown a deserving champion. And it’s done more for workplace morale than Casual Friday or any-occasion cake – at least in those workplaces where they don’t get all Gestapo about the office pool.

And now there’s a movement to add 31 more teams which have already established that they can’t win the national championship.

Good idea. Let’s give Jay Leno a try in prime time, too.

Look, to be fair, the tournament wasn’t always 64 – now 65 – teams. It grew from an original eight when necessary for the good of the game – when, for instance, UCLA was so dominant that their conference brethren couldn’t get in the bracket, when they were superior to tournament reps from other regions.

But there is simply no need for more, and certainly not 31 more – and blessedly at least some in the coaching lodge feel the same way.

“I like it the way it is,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I think it’s an honor to play in the tournament, and I think you need to earn your way in – and I don’t think you should get a pass by playing in a BCS league and going .500, either.”

Alas, he seems to be in a shrinking minority.

Even that noted hoop yogi Mike Krzyzewski of Duke has flip-flopped, having told ESPN last fall “I don’t think they should expand” but now advancing a cockamamie notion that both the regular season and tournament champions in each conference be admitted.

“If the Patriot League has two teams,” he said, “so be it.”

This may be the most disingenuous poppycock ever. One Patriot League team is quite enough, thank you. Never mind that the decision makers would never structure the tournament in such a fashion, for that very reason. The benefit would instead go to a 6-12 team out of the ACC or Big East, which has already blown its chance in both the regular season and the conference tournament but whose coach would be less likely to have boosters wanting him fired if he’s in the field of 96.

The coaches’ other rationale: Football puts a significantly higher percentage of its teams – virtually half – in postseason play.

Uh-huh. And how many of those get to play for a national championship, guys?

Conference tournaments have done enough to dilute the meaning of the regular season; this will only dilute it more. And this is to be done essentially by annexing the NIT – which was rendered irrelevant more than four decades ago.

It’s absurd on virtually every level – except that someone with a TV camera will throw enough money at the NCAA to make it believe that it’s the right thing.

“You should feel good when those names pop up on Selection Sunday,” Few said. “It shouldn’t be open to everyone.”

Which is what makes it all so strange. For being such competitive guys, Few’s colleagues seem to have no problem with rewarding mediocrity.

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