Extension of the March Madness Square beyond 68 may be the biggest college sports blunder yet


On March 9, in the late afternoon of the opening day of the Big East Championships, Xavier and Butler played a basketball game between the 8th and 9th seed in the league. Xavier entered after losing seven out of his previous nine. Butler had lost 70 percent of his conference games. And this game still bore huge results and provided extraordinary drama, because everyone inside Madison Square Garden, and the huge audience watching TV on FS1, knew what was on the line.

Xavier was playing try.

This sentence is now embedded in the sports language. NCAA staff members have spent nearly the past two decades working to educate the public about the mechanics of the March Madness selection process, and media pioneers such as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, USA Today’s Steve Wieberg and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm have helped the public begin to look inside. The race for the final few bids for the championship is a key part of what made March College basketball a month of its own.

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If members of several powerful conferences had their way, such a game would be meaningless. There will be no tension in anticipation of that match. There will be nothing in it. Xavier explodes a 6-point lead in the last 52 seconds of the organization? Did they miss all five free throws in this stretch? Get lost in overtime? Who cares? The riders are between 18 and 13 years old, with some decent strength rating numbers.

The committee must place someone in the 72-team field.

Or will it be 80? Or – dear God, not that again – 96?

The people in charge of college athletics are very good. They have proven their prowess as sports managers, in professional sports front offices, as business executives. How are they missing so badly on this? How can they not see that the “extra” games already in the first four NCAA games are a far cry from watching the dates even for ardent college basketball fans? How could they not understand the damage that would be done even by the modest expansion of the excitement generated in their regular seasons and conference sessions?

I came to believe they got it all, but they also realized that NCAA President Mark Emmert needed some positive publicity and financial certainty in 2016, extending the deal he signed six years ago with CBS and Turner, and leaving the NCAA Championship undervalued. The real thing on the market today. The NCAA will receive approximately $1 billion annually starting in 2025, when the extension will begin and run through 2032. That’s a lot of money. There could be more, though.

Can the contract be opened in case of field expansion? It is not clear if such a thing is possible, but it seems to be the only rational explanation for this expansionary fervor.

* The public has no apparent desire for the NCAA tournament being further expanded. This is evident in the numbers from the first four games last spring. It has attracted, on average, about 1.7 million viewers. That’s pretty good for a standard college basketball game, but those numbers were at least a little cheerful with attractions involving Notre Dame and Indiana (with ND playing the extra double action thriller). Extending that to two more opening-round games will likely bring that number down because their broadcast windows can’t be prime time.

* There is no need for major conferences to fear reaching bids, even as their membership expands. In the past five seasons, Power 5 conferences have averaged fewer than six NCAA performances per season; This was Pac-12, averaging 3.6 bids per year. The Big Ten and ACC averaged 7.4 each, the Big 12 and SEC averaged 6.4 each, and the Big East was 5.4. Those six tournaments combined consumed 36.6 shows per season, or 54 percent of the field. Remember, the 16-team Big East received 11 bids at once. At 14 members, the Big Ten has put nine on the field in each of the past two seasons, and with 15 members, the ACC has done so in both 2017 and 2018. How did these tournaments make it happen? They played great basketball in the regular season.

* This cannot relate to funds generated from the current bid structure. Each tournament “unit” is worth about $2 million. Given that the majority of the top four teams don’t last very long, one of these tests – split 12, 14 or 16 ways – won’t change the luck of any major league.

* Has everyone forgotten how important the bow is to the popularity of the event?

* The teams excluded from the stadium of 68 teams do not belong.

For the past three years, I have worked as a specialty analyst for Fox Sports. So part of my job during the college basketball season is to dive deep into the kind of teams that fit in the current field. Last season, I was wrong on one team by Selection Sunday: Texas A&M was included. I wasn’t alone in this. Of the 211 projections collected online by Bracket Matrix, 200 had Aggies in the field.

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Lonardi had put them in Wyoming’s place. I put them in front of Notre Dame, which was the most common decision. I thought the Aggies’ SEC wins over Auburn and Arkansas – and a head-to-head win on neutral ground over ND – were worth the inclusion. But suing them is nothing but a mistake.

The Aggies were 4-9 against teams on the field and lost three times to teams that were nowhere near as good. They lost nine out of ten from late January to late February. My vote says they belong, only because someone should be the 68th team. Their record left it up to the whims of others whose votes were already counted.

That’s who would fill the next four if the field were extended to 72, plus the Aggies and Musketeers, according to Bracket Matrix: SMU, which has won three of its five games against an NCAA championship game but lost six times to teams that didn’t make the field, and Oklahoma Which had three losses against non-championship teams and scored 4-12 against the field.

How many times does a team have to lose to an NCAA Championship competitor to prove conclusively that it does not deserve the NCAA itself?

And it is unimaginable how terrible the stadium would be if it exceeded 72, let alone how little meaning would be attached to the regular season and major conference tournaments in such a scenario.

No, there is only one reason for anyone to push the expansion of the March Madness field beyond its limits. This might sound like a good reason at the moment. But there will be no way to repair the damage done to the sport and its appeal.


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