Should March Madness Expand? How Will It Impact Mountain West
Let’s just double it!!
Does bigger mean better?
The NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament is one of the biggest annual sporting events and could be the biggest amateur sports event in the world.
The tournament, aptly nicknamed, March madness, is already a massive undertaking, but could it get bigger? Apparently so.
Because the landscape of college athletics is always changing, and because conference realignment, changes to name-image-likeness rules, more conference realignment, and College Football Playoff expansion simply wasn’t enough drama, the NCAA is now considering an expansion to the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament.
Blue checks and burners alike took to Twitter to voice their varying opinions on the matter. There is no shortage of suggestions, but at least one person thinks they should just add another round. The person making that suggestion is none other than NCAA champion and head coach of the Baylor Bears, Scott Drew.
For the Mountain West, a healthy mid-major conference with a strong reputation in basketball, this is very relevant, even more than the expansion of the college football playoff.
While an expansion in the college football playoffs is overdue, there didn’t seem to be much appetite for an expanded basketball tournament. The tournament has even had minor expansions relatively recently. It expanded to 65 teams in 2001 and to 68 in 2011.
Maybe the NCAA is just trying to stay ahead of potential demand. Expanding postseason play is becoming quite a trend. Since the NCAA’s last expansion in 2011, the MLB, NBA, and NFL have all expanded their own playoffs. Additionally, the College Football Playoff was introduced and is already approaching its own major expansion.
Understanding why the NCAA would or would not add another round requires understanding why the NCAA tournament even exists. The answer to that prerequisite mystery is even more elusive because there isn’t one sole purpose.
The purely utilitarian purpose is for the tournament to act as an objective mechanism to determine the best team in the county. But that’s a far too simplistic way of looking at it.
Fans, partners, and sponsors fund the whole thing, and they rely on the entertainment value of the tournament. Without the entertainment aspect, the millions of dollars that run through college sports would not exist.
The student-athletes and schools have little to no obligation to entertain, so the tournament shouldn’t be built around spectators, but entertainment is, and should be treated as, a central asset to the tournament, not merely a lucrative byproduct.
Any change in the current structure of the tournament would take some significant effort. Just how significant, however, depends on the details of the expansion.
Another full round of games seems like a lot. It is and it isn’t. Well, it is and it isn’t.
On the one hand, it would nearly double the number of teams and add 60 more games to the tournament. On the other hand, it would only be one more round and likely wouldn’t add more than at most a couple of days to the tournament. Plus, because the play-in round already exists, a change like this wouldn’t even affect every seed position.
It could become a logistical nightmare or it could entail some surprisingly moderate action.
Would this change be a net positive or a net negative for the conference? And how can such a thing be measured? Until the specifics of such an expansion come into focus, it’s difficult to extrapolate the downstream effects, especially the direct impact on a given team or conference.
One concern for mid-major fans and programs is the potential for bias for power conference teams. With a strong non-conference schedule, some league-wide parity, and maybe an upset in the conference championship, could an entire power conference go dancing? If so, what kind of precedent could that set? What does that mean for mid-major conferences?
The selection committee is mandated to be impartial and there is no reason to believe the selection committee is rife with corruption, favoritism, and unchecked biases, but the truth is, no season exists in a vacuum. Preseason expectations, rankings, and assumptions are largely based on the previous season.
The opposite could also be a valid concern for the Mountain West.
The Mountain West has solidified its position as a multi-bid league, so it stands to reason that the conference would be able to add bids in an expanded tournament field, but an expanded tournament would presumably open the possibility for more invitations to schools at every level, from high, mid, and low major. So, lower-tier conferences could also take a share of the newly-added invitations, not just the higher-level conferences.
If one-bid leagues become multi-bid leagues, they would be taking away bids that could otherwise be allotted to the Mountain West.
For some teams and conferences, this could be a significant game changer. Teams from conferences that are single-bid leagues could still fight for the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament even without an automatic bid.
In 2003-2004, Utah State had one of the best basketball teams in the county but suffered an upset loss to Pacific in the Big West tournament championship game. The Aggies finished the season ranked 25 in the country, but did not receive an invitation to the tournament.
An expanded tournament could help teams like that 2003-04 Utah State team and others like it. In fact, it likely would have, as the tournament added three more teams in 2011.
That Utah State team, while one of the most glaring examples, is not rare. While that remains the most recent occurrence of a ranked team missing the tournament, each year, plenty of teams feel worthy of an invitation to the NCAA tournament but don’t receive one. Some of these teams find their way to the NIT, some to the Basketball Classic, but some don’t get to play in the post-season at all. This is the exact problem that Coach Drew wants to address.
“Players, they work all their life to be a part of the NCAA tournament. If you go to 128 [teams], you get about one-third who get to experience that. … If more teams get a chance to make it, I think [there will be] great games.” Drew told ESPN.
Addressing that problem could impact the Mountain West. The conference faces plenty of formidable competitors but is in an excellent position.
Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, and Wyoming each participated in the 2022 NCAA tournament, making the Mountain West a four-bid league. Additionally, the conference sent Utah State to the NIT and Fresno State to the Basketball Classic, where the Bulldogs won the championship.
The year before that, the conference earned two bids to the tournament, Utah State and San Diego State, but Colorado State was notably listed as one of the tournament’s “first four out” and a backup team should any other team withdraw prior to the tournament. Colorado State, along with Boise State, ended up playing in the NIT.
The Mountain West conference is a league with a strong tradition of post-season presence.
Despite the need to address the problem of having little tournament success, the league would seem to be poised to take advantage of an expanded field. The teams in the Mountain West are strong and boast a unique blend of historic and recent success. Many teams have strong and durable traditions of success and have a history of being well-coached, recruiting unique talent, playing hard, and earning community support.
The individual teams, and the entire Mountain West conference would be directly impacted by an expanded tournament. The exact impact is impossible to measure or predict, but in terms of the number of invitations to the tournament, it seems likely that the Mountain West would be in line to benefit.
College athletics should always exist in a manner that best serves the interest of the student-athletes. There are other factors to consider as well, but none are as paramount as the well-being of the student-athletes. The interests of the schools, as academic institutions, should also be protected, as well as the livelihood of the administrators, coaches, trainers, and other individuals making college basketball possible. Also to be considered are the financial supporters of college athletics and the NCAA tournament.
Corporate sponsors, media partners, and other institutions are also major stakeholders in this event. The fans, consisting of students, graduates, future and prospective students, educators, and just about everyone else, have a love for the game that shouldn’t be neglected or ignored. Fans can tell the difference between a “soul-less cash-grab” and a well-intentioned change to the status quo. With the right intentions and careful forethought, the NCAA is fully capable of making changes that benefit everyone.
If an expanded tournament could be reasonably expected to benefit the student-athletes, it should be considered. Furthermore, if schools, and to a lesser degree, conferences, could benefit, there is no reason not to consider an expanded field of play. If sponsors and partners could adjust to the changes, finding a mutually-beneficial and sustainable way to fund the operations, expansion becomes possible. Of course, all this should be done in a way that doesn’t insult the fans of the players, schools, and the game.