NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament doesn’t need to expand

Hey Greg Sankey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Leave the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament alone. It’s great the way it is. It was an iconic event with 32 teams, much less 64. There was no real reason to expand to 68 teams, much less the 80 or 96 or 120 or whatever ridiculous number you’ve been suggesting recently.

Bigger isn’t always better. Just because Sankey, the SEC commissioner, and Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, keep expanding the membership of their respective conferences doesn’t mean we need to expand the NCAA Tournament, as the two have recently promoted.

“I want this next year, these next couple years, to ask, ‘Why? Why are we doing this? Why have we done this?’” Warren said at Big Ten Basketball Media Days. “Because so many times I’ve seen that people say, ‘Well, that’s because we’ve always done it that way,’” Warren said. “If we can provide [college athletes] with unique opportunities and experiences, be able to travel, learn, meet new people [and] compete for championships, then I’m very interested.”

“Unique opportunities and experiences” is the language of consultants. You know the joke about consultants. A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch and then tells you what time it is.

Sankey, who said in the spring he believed the NCAA needed to take a “fresh look” at the tournament, doubled down at SEC Basketball Media Days last week.

“What I’ve been through is a set of conversations at the national level, about being fearful through this NCAA transformation process that things would be taken away,” the commissioner said. “My advocacy was, rather than worrying about taking things away, why don’t we take a step back and think about how we grow? The division’s grown over time. The number of members, the quality of basketball, the commitment that I’ve talked about here, the expectations that are upon any number of programs nationally. So, why don’t we facilitate those opportunities?”

“Facilitate those opportunities,” is corporate-speak for “we want to make more money.” The more teams in the tournament, the more games. (“Inventory” would be the corporate term.) The more games, the more the NCAA can ask for broadcast rights, via television or streaming. It’s always about the money. And for professional sports at the collegiate level, there’s never ever enough money.

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Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey has said the NCAA needs to take a “fresh look” at expanding its basketball tournament. John Bazemore PA

The truth is basketball programs have plenty of “opportunities” to “facilitate” right now. It’s called the regular season. The more teams there are in the NCAA Tournament, the less the regular season truly matters.

College basketball’s regular campaign is watered down enough as it is now. Here in Hoops Country, we pay attention to what happens between the first of November and the end of February. Most of America does not. It only cares about March Madness. If then.

I might be OK with tournament expansion — emphasis on “might” — if those current one-bid leagues were given greater access to the party. But we know that won’t happen. Instead, those extra 12 invitations will be handed to the ninth-place team in the Pac-12, or the 11th-place team in the ACC, or the 14th-place teams in both the SEC and the Big 12.

Coaches love the expansion idea. Of course coaches do. More NCAA bids means more job security. Coaches will say it’s not about that. Coaches will say it’s about wanting more kids to experience the thrill of playing in the NCAA Tournament. But isn’t the thrill diminished if nearly everyone gains access? What makes an NCAA Tournament bid special, and Selection Sunday so special, is the experience of actually earning your way into the field.

These protests won’t matter, of course. The Sankeys and Warrens will get their way, just as they have before, expanding their conferences again and again and again. Meanwhile, college athletics risks losing the very things that make college athletics special in the first place. All in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Now the expansionists are coming for the NCAA Tournament.

No doubt they will get it, too.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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