This weekend brings us the joy of Selection Sunday, the gateway to March Madness, which leads to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and the Final Four. But these days Sports Nation is riled up – and I mean RILED UP – over the prospect that the idyllic 65-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament might soon expand to 96 schools.
Or, as it would be called in college hoops parlance, the Needless Ninety-Six.
Reaction to the possibility of the first major increase of the NCAA tournament field in 25 years has been somewhere between apoplectic and apocalyptic.
First and foremost, a 96-team field would make it very, very, very, very difficult for office-pool tournament brackets to fit onto a single page. Of course, this point is somewhat negated by the fact that almost everyone in America, at the moment, is out of work.
Second and foremost, a 96-team field would entail an entire extra weekend of play and make it very, very, very difficult for student-athletes to keep up with their academic load. Of course, this point is somewhat negated by the fact that most Division I basketball players don’t actually have an academic load.
Let me just assure a skittish public as best I can: We’re going to be OK. We really are.
But apparently – and I didn’t realize this until countless sports columnists and bloggers pointed it out – 65 is the magic number for March Madness.
At its origin – from 1939 to 1950 – the NCAA tournament had eight teams. What was wrong with that? Aren’t many Bowl Championship Series critics proposing an eight-team college football playoff?
From eight teams the tournament went to 16 for two years and eventually settled at 25 for a while. Then the field kept growing – to 32, 40, 48, 52, 53, 64 and, finally, in 2001, 65.
(Incidentally, we are in the midst of ESPN’s “Championship Week” – better known in Jay Bilas’ house as “Where’s Daddy?” – featuring 177 men’s and women’s conference tournament games in an 11-day period on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN on ABC, ESPN360.com, ESPN Full Court, ESPN Mobile TV, ESPN Radio or ESPN International. I can’t even fathom how many eight-outlet power strips are in operation in Bristol.)
Purists always decry postseason expansion; to this day, Bob Costas gets a neck rash when he hears the expression “baseball wild-card playoff race.”
Yet if you live in America long enough – and I’m getting there – you come to realize that everything expands. You also realize that it’s always about money, and in sports, the money comes from television. So, frankly, a combination of Darwinian evolution and Draconian economics would lead the NCAA to seek even more billions of dollars from CBS, or another TV partner.
The simple way to do this is to provide more games to televise.
Alas, as I mentioned earlier, Sports Nation is not accepting this potential change quietly.
One of my favorite people, Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton, called the 96-team proposal “the worst idea in the history of ideas.”
The worst idea in the history of ideas?
Now, Tracee watches even more TV than I do, so she disappoints me here. Does she not recall CBS selecting Tim McCarver to be prime-time co-host of the Winter Olympics in 1992? Or CNBC giving John McEnroe his own prime-time talk show in 2004? Heck, she could turn on Lifetime TV and probably see a worse idea at almost any time of any day.
Like many other grieving, offended March Madness savants, Tracee also complains that a 96-team field creates a first-round bye for the nation’s 32 best teams. This means the marquee teams would sit out the opening weekend and we’d lose the spectacle of the little guy trying to upset the big bully.
Well, if you don’t want first-round byes, there’s an easy solution:
Expand the field to 128 teams.
Indeed, people love the No. 1 seed vs. the No. 16 seed; imagine a No. 1 seed against a No. 32 seed. If a 16 seed is Cinderella, a 32 seed would be Cinderella in high heels!
Ask The Slouch
Q. John Daly, on Twitter, posted a Florida sportswriter’s phone number in an attempt to harass him. How many times has this happened to you? (Jason Lee; South Euclid, Ohio)
A. Actually, my phone number is a matter of public record, plus I have scrawled it on several bus-terminal bathroom walls.
Q. What’s the over/under on the number of times Jim Nantz mentions CBS in his broadcasts? (Jay Wilt; Pittsburgh)
A. Hey, pal, you should feel fortunate he doesn’t say “Columbia Broadcasting System” each time.
Q. Because of his steroid use, the Missouri State Senate has voted unanimously to rename a stretch of I-70 now called Mark McGwire Highway. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just keep the name and widen it to 16 lanes? (Jim Bohannon; Washington, D.C.)
A. Pay the man on the radio, Shirley.