The NCAA has floated an idea to expand the annual “March Madness” men’s basketball tournament from 64 to 96 teams. Bad idea. It should expand to 347 teams. Everybody in. Nobody on The Bubble.
It’s not exactly a radical idea. Indiana held a one-class hoops tournament for 87 years, inspiring the term “Hoosier Hysteria.” Illinois did the same for 64 years, inventing the term “March Madness,” first used in 1939 though now trademarked by the NCAA. The Illinois state tournament included more than a thousand high school teams at its height, while Indiana’s included more than 750 schools. Both tournaments used to draw standing-room-only crowds and massive media coverage. Used to. Since Illinois split their tournament into enrollment classes in the seventies—and Indiana did the same in the nineties—interest has waned. Who cares if the Cobden Appleknockers win the Class A tournament? But the entire state of Illinois was enthralled by the towering team from the orchard town of 900 people when they made it to the championship game against mighty Pekin—a city 30 times larger than Cobden.
In 1952, Alden-Hebron, a school of 98 students actually won the whole thing, whipping Quincy, a school of more than a 1,000. And a couple years later over in Indiana, the Milan Indians beat Muncie Central, a school 10 times its size, to win the 1954 Indiana state championship in a tournament that included 751 teams, a victory immortalized in the movie “Hoosiers.” Forty-thousand people descended on the town of 1,000 people to greet the Indians. But if Milan was to win the 2010 Indiana state Class A tournament over say, Attica, it would hardly make a ripple. Several points here. One, organizing a tournament to include all 347 NCAA Division I basketball teams is hardly the herculean task that defenders of the status quo are making it out to be. If two “flyover states” could manage tourneys two or three times larger, long before computers made everything easy, the Billion-Dollar Club at the NCAA should be able to do it. Going from 64 to 256 adds two more games. The other 91 get a “play-in” round. Or create a two-round-plus process for the 283 “other” teams to qualify matches for the 64 “invitees.”
It’s just not that hard. Reduce the regular season from 31 to 28 games and nobody will be able to scream about “lengthening the season.” Hell, the big programs already schedule a half-dozen early-season automatic wins. So UNC won’t play Presbyterian in November. Big deal. Secondly, tournaments that include every team likewise involve every fan. That seems to be something extremely obvious that the NCAA, and perhaps the TV networks too, just don’t get. When Central Florida doesn’t make the tournament, as they usually don’t, it turns the students at the largest university east of the Mississippi into “casual fans.” When Penn State misses the cut, as they normally do, it does the same to the nation’s largest group of alumni. Maybe they’ll watch, maybe they won’t. They don’t really care. Thirdly, by arbitrarily dismissing more than 80 percent of member schools, the NCAA has been virtually eliminating any possibility of a Milan or a Cobden from ever making a run at the title. This year, Mount Saint Mary’s (enrollment 2,000) of the Northeast Conference ended their season with 11 straight wins before losing in the NEC tournament title game to Robert Morris, the same squad that took Villanova to the wire in the NCAA. So a red-hot Mount team was sent home in favor of a so-so Minnesota team that finished 9-9 in the Big Ten and went 7-5 in their last dozen games before promptly losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And that’s the final point. Teams that improve as the season progresses now sit and watch while mediocre teams from the big conferences advance to the Big Dance.
Open it up. The fans will love it. TV will love it. What are they afraid of? And if you’re still not sure, rent the “Hoosiers” DVD. “Hickory High” was really Milan, enrollment 161. And they whipped Muncie Central, enrollment 1600. And they really did win the Indiana State Basketball Tournament, out of 751 schools. Not because they were invited, but because they had the chance to earn the title, by winning it. Everybody did, and that’s what made the tournament great.