- Sunday, April 4, 2010 6:00 PM
- Written By: Sumner Widdoes
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in under siege, they say. It’s about to be destroyed by money-grubbing university presidents and greedy network execs. It’s about to turn the best sporting event of the year into a free-for-all for the mediocre. It’s about to expand to 96 teams and we, the fans, should be up in arms, they say.
Over the past few months the whispers of a March Madness expansion have escalated to the level of Around the Horn shout-match fodder. It seems every week a new athletic director or conference commissioner praises the idea and that it is almost inevitable that, beginning next spring, 32 more teams will play for a chance to win the national championship. But many people have a problem with this – many, many problems actually – most of which pull at the emotion bond that we hoops fans have established with these three weeks in March and April. The tournament is already perfect! I love filling out the bracket the way it is! Bringing in more teams would make the regular season meaningless because everyone would get in!
To those arguments, I say this: Get over it. Sports fans live in fear of change, but they adapt well. Racial integration, free agency, the DH – each was met with disdain yet all endure with little opposition. But other, more pragmatic objections to tournament expansion are more compelling: That the current 64-team field is a sufficient size to determine the best college basketball team in the country. In other words, none of the additional 32 teams in the tourney will have any real shot at winning the title.
This point is almost undeniably true, but it also assumes the premise that the tournament’s sole purpose is to determine the best team in the country, one that I would consider pretty naïve – the NCAA tournament is about crowning a champ and raking in dough. Considering the lowest-seeded champion ever was No. 8 Villanova in 1985 and that No. 1 seeds have won 14 of the past 20 tournaments, I think it’s safe to say that half the teams in the tournament right now have no shot at winning it all. (For a thorough manifesto on why expansion is good from the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, go here)
Still, I was reluctant to support a movement that I’m sure is motivated by greed and will undoubtedly exacerbate the exploitation of college athletes (more tournament time means less class time). But that all changed last night when I watched Duke send West Virginia home for the season. With just fewer than nine minutes remaining and the game slipping out of reach for the Mountaineers, Da’Sean Butler, the team’s best player, ended his college career. After driving into the lane and charging into Duke center Brian Zoubek, Butler hit the deck and grabbed his left knee, squirming and writhing back and forth while the players around him reacted to a somewhat suspect offensive foul call. Butler tore his ACL.
Moments later, West Virginia coach and alum Bob Huggins calmly walked to his star senior guard, knelt down beside him and cradled Butler’s head between his forearms as if the kid had a concussion. Then Huggins lowered his head toward Butler’s so their noses were millimeters apart, stroked Butler’s forehead and cheek repeatedly with his hand and spoke to him for almost one minute. I doubt anyone besides Huggins and Butler will ever know what the coach said, but we don’t need a formal record to know what happened: A star player’s injury ended his college career while his team was getting blown out of the Final Four, so a coach thanked him and made sure he knew how special he was. Or something like that.
Whatever the specific message was, that intimate moment between coach and player on the floor together put this entire tournament in perspective. March Madness is about the players, the coaches and the teams – not about the fans or the TV networks or the conferences. Yes, all those other entities benefit from the games, but this tournament is really about giving a few hundred 18-22-year-olds the chance to pull off an upset and play for a title. It may be the case that most of the teams in the Dance don’t have a chance in hell to win it all, but who are we to say they can’t try. Expanding the NCAA basketball tournament would be good for corporations and school revenues, but it’s also good for college athletes, who dedicate an absurd amount of time to a game that could be taken away from them with one unlucky drive to the hoop.
The tournament is the best sports event we have, so naturally we don’t want to change it. But if the demand is there and the talent is there – and the NIT field is much better than you think – I say give more college athletes a chance to make the Final Four. We fans are selfish, but in the end, we just want to watch more great ball. Don’t fight the 96, because it’s looking like it will happen anyway.