College basketball differs from college football in one crucial way: College basketball absolutely loves itself some underdogs.
College football, on the other hand, might be the most elitist sport in the country in terms of how much the sport seems to absolutely loathe anyone but the best of the best.
So when I read a piece such as one written by ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan this week, I wondered if the elitist mentality isn”t slipping across the border between the two sports.
Brennan wants to get rid of conference tournaments in college basketball or, if not get rid of them altogether, strip them of their significance by removing the automatic NCAA tournament bid that is associated with winning one.
I suppose it comes down to a matter of personal taste, but here’s a legitimate question: Which NCAA tournament was more fun to watch: The Kentucky coronation in 2012 or the Butler-VCU Final Four free-for-all in 2011?
The answer is simple for me—2011 was a blast. Last year was OK, but not without a certain feeling of inevitability to it.
However, it seems to me that it is just a matter of time before the question of conference tournaments and automatic NCAA tournament bids becomes moot anyway.
We’re on a slow buildup to a 96-team NCAA tournament bracket; anyone who argues online bingo otherwise is either burying their head in the sand in complete denial or just doesn’t understand how to read the signs that are right there in front of us.
In 2005, the NCAA bought the National Invitation Tournament as a settlement to a lawsuit brought by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association accusing the NCAA of trying to kill the NIT.
Soon after taking control of college basketball’s longest-running tournament (the NIT predates the NCAA tournament by one year; it was first played in 1938, with the NCAA tournament making its debut in 1939), the NCAA awarded automatic NIT bids to any regular-season conference champion that failed to secure a bid to the NCAA.
For schools such as Middle Tennessee in 2012 or the regular-season champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference in any season—conferences whose regular-season champion is almost never in a position to compete for an at-large bid to the Big Dance—it was a godsend, a way to guarantee at least a taste of postseason play.
But the NCAA has also been slowly, inexorably increasing the number of teams in its championship tournament. After finding the magic number of 64 in 1985, the NCAA added an opening-round game and expanded the field to 65 in 2001. In 2011, the tournament field grew to 68 teams and the opening round became the first round.
That makes it pretty clear that the door is wide open to eventually expand to 96 teams. That number was even widely talked about before the decision to expand to 68 was announced.
It’s just a matter of time; it might be five or 10 years down the road, but the NCAA field will be 96 teams at some point.
And when that happens, those regular-season conference champions will be in a position to get an automatic bid, a privilege that could also still be extended to conference tournament winners.
Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?