Was NCAA Expansion Really Necessary?

Amidst all of the current excitement surrounding the Bruins’ and Celtics’ playoff runs, the Red Sox regular season, and the Patriots’ incoming draft pick, I figure that it is only fitting that I throw in an article about the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field.  There is a wonderful saying that has made its’ way around our society and it goes something like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Someone needs to send that memo along to the NCAA’s Board of Directors.  They have just agreed to expand the field from 65 to 68 teams, and do that by adding three more play-in games.  Currently, the one play in game occurs on the Tuesday before the tournament begins (which is on a Thursday).  That one game essentially consists of the two lowest automatic bid teams that are forced to win in order to compete in the “Big Dance.”  Because of this game, I have made it a point to consistently attack the process of giving automatic bids to teams, when in essence all teams that receive automatic bids do not actually get to play in the tournament (the loser of the play in game goes home without a chance to experience what the thirty other automatic bid teams get to).

Now that the field has expanded to 68 teams, there will be four play in games.  The real question is, who will have to participate in those aforementioned games.  Many have suggested that the last eight at-large teams should be forced to participate in the play in games.  While others, including myself, believe that the eight worst teams allowed into the field of 68 should be forced to play into the NCAA Tournament.  Either way, the play in games will present no more relevance than they already do.  The two main draws for people to watch the NCAA Tournament are either they are truly fans of watching college basketball and would love to do nothing more than to dedicate almost three weeks of their life to drinking beer and watching basketball games (that would be me), and then there are people not overly interested in basketball but get caught in the “bracket hype” and watch solely to see their predictions come true and to try and win some money.  There is nothing wrong with either of these groups (except future health problems for the excessive beer drinkers) but there is one constant, not one person cares who wins the play in game.  Whether the games consisted of Winthrop vs. Arkansas Pine-Bluff or if it was New Mexico State vs. Utah State, there will be little importance involved with either game.  Now I know what you are going to say, “Yea, but I had Utah State upsetting Texas A&M in the first round!”  Well sorry to burst your bubble, but whether a 12 to 5 upset occurs or not, it is inevitable that within the next one or two rounds that twelve seed is getting knocked off.  It does not matter whether they miraculously win a play in game or not, their NCAA tournament experience will be short lived.

Here is my solution.  If you want to add more play in games to increase the excitement on Tuesday, than you need to eliminate automatic bids.  The last eight automatic bids (in 2010 these teams were: Winthrop, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, ETSU, Leheigh, Vermont, UCSB, Morgan St., and North Texas) have absolutely no chance of competing with the elite teams in the tournament.  So do they deserve to be involved in a tournament that determines a national champion?  Games between these teams would be lightly attended and even more lightly viewed on national television.  If you make the last eight at large teams (in 2010 these teams were: Cornell, New Mexico St., Utah State, UTEP, San Diego St., Washington, Old Dominion, and Minnesota) than you may generate a bit more excitement on Tuesday, but you clearly have four worse teams left in the tournament (the last four automatic bids) than you just eliminated (the four losers of the play in games).  If automatic bids are eliminated and you simply have the 68 best teams battling it out for the national championship, then the play in games make complete sense.  Essentially you are making the bubble teams play their way into the field of 64.  Until the auto bids are eliminated, the play in games will still be useless and the talent within the tournament will never be at a maximum.

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