Merit-Based March Madness

Butler University's storied run to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Men's basketball championship game makes a powerful argument for keeping March Madness as it is. But if the field is to be expanded, the performance of the Bulldogs and many of their feisty mid-major conference counterparts points the way to doing it right.

Although it's not official, it is becoming more clear with each passing day that the NCAA intends to expand the tournament from its current 65-team field to 96. The issue has moved from if to when in a surprisingly short time.

Understandably, there is a great deal of opposition. Veteran sportswriter John Feinstein summed up the general sentiment succinctly Monday morning in the Washington Post, writing: "This NCAA Tournament is about as close to a perfect sporting event as happens in the jock pantheon."

The motivation behind the expansion is clearly money, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, depending of course on how it's used. If extra money from an expanded tournament helps schools keep minor sports programs going, great. If it only contributes to the major-school head coach salary excesses we have seen recently, a problem USA Today cited last week as "creating a strain on school budgets," that would be a problem.

The most important objection to growing the field in 2011 or shortly thereafter has really been relevant since 1985, the year of March Madness's last major expansion. Until then, it was usually the case that if your team didn't win its conference's regular-season championship or its post-season tournament, or otherwise have an exceptional won-lost record, it probably wasn't going to the Big Dance. Though it has given us some wonderful Cinderella stories, that 1985 expansion has also enabled many mediocre teams to get in for one and only one reason: membership in a so-called major conference. Extending invitations to teams losing as many as 10, 12, or 14 games during the regular season has diminished the value of winning a conference championship, and on balance has not been fair to mid-major schools with better winning percentages.

ESPN Radio's John Stashower raised the ante on this objection this past weekend, worrying that "no will pay attention to college basketball until March." If the expansion simply serves to add more mediocre major-conference teams to the mix, he will probably be right. I've heard predictions that the Big East Conference might place as many as 13 teams in the tournament if the NCAA opts for more of the same in an expanded format. That's ridiculous.