Expand the NCAA Tournament now

Villanova lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this year to George Mason. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

The NCAA Tournament is at a crossroads, if anybody wants to be honest about it. This isn't all about Virginia Commonwealth or Butler or the most wide-open Final Four we have ever seen. This is a trend now, and it needs to be recognized and acknowledged in the only way that makes intellectual sense.

They need to expand the tournament, to 96 teams at the least. And they need to do it now.

I know we all grew up with something smaller, and we all came to love the 64-team format. There was a symmetry to the bracket that seemed to comfortable. But the truth is that the tournament expanded not in search of symmetry, but in search of money -- and, more importantly, because there were more qualified teams than ever as more and more schools poured more and more money into the sport.

Well, it is time again.

Ninety-six. At least.

We all heard for weeks leading up to Selection Sunday how bad the bubble teams were in a 68-team tournament, and how it was hard to find deserving teams to fill the final spots on the bracket. But now that one of the recipients of those final invitations -- VCU -- has Shaka'd the world, this really needs to be recognized and acted upon.

The current system fails too many schools from too many conferences outside of the big six (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 and Big East). The current system, in fact, perpetuates the dominance of those big six. So much is based upon strength of schedule, and those schools only reluctantly play outisde the family, and the result is that you get this ESPN-fueled inbreeding of the bracket every year. It takes a mighty strong committee to withstand the on-air onslaught in favor of the big schools and the big conferences, and most are not that strong. Most are afraid to say out loud what everybody knows, and what this tournament again has demonstrated: that there are more teams capable of winning two or three or four games in this thing than there have ever been.

More teams need to be given that chance.

Again, this is not a 1-year thing. Let's look at a rolling 5-year analysis of the total number of teams outside of the BCS conferences who made it to the Sweet 16. Each season, then, is the total of the previous five years of those outsiders making it through to the second weekend.












The pattern is pretty clear. More of these middling schools from the big conferences are losing to more of these schools from the outsider conferences. This is the crossroads, then. Is the NCAA going to acknowledge this and expand the field, or is it going to continue to cater to the BCS leagues (perhaps out of a fear that they'll all just pull out and have their own tournament).

The NCAA could widen the representation in two ways. One would be to limit the number of bids per conference (and don't tell me it's unAmerican; they used to limit it to one team per conference, back in the day).  The other would be to expand the field. Ninety-six is not a terrible number.

They could expand on the "First Four" concept they began this year. It would go like this: everybody gets seeded into four regions, each with 24 teams. In the first round, the top four teams in each region would receive a bye, as would the bottom four teams (all automatic qualifiers). Everybody in between would play a first-round game. The top teams would get the warmup cupcake that they earned, the cupcakes would get their day in the sun, and everybody else would slug it out in smaller arenas like the Palestra. The tournament would take the same amount of time that this year's took.

Don't like 96? How about 80 teams with a limit of eight per conference? Or 76 with a limit of seven per conference? There are ways to do this if there is the desire. Given the realities, it is time.

The last word goes to Fran Dunphy. The Temple coach offered this valedictory after his team's double-overtime loss to San Diego State in the second round of the tournament. After three of his players had left the podium, he talked about the experience:

I think it's a tremendous extravaganza, in all honesty. You are so thrilled to be a part of it. Then when you can win and then you have a chance to move on, it's a thrilling experience.

I will say this to you. If somebody asked me, I would expand the field in a heartbeat because these kids, they're never going to get this experience again. Hopefully our guys will get it if we can get back to -- get back to the tournament next year. But once they leave this college experience, it's a phenomenal thing. So I really wish there were more teams that had the opportunity. Because in all honesty, what are we in this for? We're in it for the experience each and every one of these kids can get.

So when you fly out here and you get a special treatment by everybody that you deal with, it's a tremendous opportunity. So I would like to expand it to as many kids as possible. I know people say water it down. Well, it's gone from 16 to 32 to 64 to 65 to 68, I haven't seen any watered down yet. So if somebody would ask me, I'd like to bump it out again because of the experience. And that's what we do.

Those three guys that just sat up here, that's what you do. Without them, I'm pretty much insignificant. So I'd rather be significant and I'd like to deal with these guys as much as possible.

It's a thrilling opportunity and I'm so glad that our kids had a chance to do it. I just wish it was open to more people.