Oh, boy. Here we go again.
It was just a few weeks ago that I asked -- OK, decreed -- that we should never speak of NCAA tournament expansion again. The tournament included 68 teams. The First Four was a real thing. The NCAA had its massive broadcast rights contract. Fans and media were relieved we weren't watching the tournament's first 96-team field. All was well in the land of college hoops.
Then, VCU happened.
You can see why VCU's run threatens the current bracket format. After all, were it not for this year's expansion to 68 teams, the Rams wouldn't have been in the field. If mediocre-before-March VCU can make a one-in-a-million run to the Final Four, why shouldn't their scorned bubble compatriots -- since relegated to the NIT -- get the same chance?
All of a sudden, radio hosts are asking famous analysts whether a 96-team tournament makes sense. All of a sudden, my friends are asking me we don't "just throw every team into the NCAA tournament and just see what happens?" All of a sudden, the need for a preemptive anti-expansion defense has become immediate and desperate. All of a sudden, those who fear the dilution of the greatest competition in sports -- you, me, and pretty much everyone who doesn't coach at a Division I program -- must crush this expansionist uprising post haste.
This talking point is still in its early phases. We still have time to stop it in its tracks.
Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis was the first to take up the call to arms today, and his breakdown of why further expansion is a bad idea covers all the basics: The tournament would become diluted and unwieldy for fans; the NCAA doesn't need the money; the regular season would be further devalued; teams already have a chance to do what VCU did by winning their conference tournament; and so on.
Davis also adds something to the discussion: Namely, he takes one of the lingering pro-expansion arguments -- that tournament expansion was always unpopular -- and destroys it with the quickness:
Here is where [Syracuse coach Jim] Boeheim and other 96ers riposte with a falsehood -- namely, that there was also a great deal of public resistance when the NCAA tournament was expanded in the past, yet after it happened people were happy. I happen to have a unique perspective on this because I wrote a book about the 1979 championship game between Magic and Bird and how it spurred the growth of the tournament. Between 1978 and '85, the tournament expanded numerous times, starting at 32 teams and ending up at 64. As I researched that period in depth, I did not come across a single article or quote that criticized those changes. Quite the contrary. In my book I quoted a 1983 New York Times article that referred to the tournament as "perhaps the fastest-growing sports event in the country." The prevailing reaction was excitement, not despair. So if Boeheim or anyone else tries to use this line of reasoning, I would challenge them to produce the evidence that expansion was resisted in the past.
Just another little nugget to keep in your back pocket for the next time you hear someone argue -- probably a coach -- that tournament expansion was always unpopular. Oh, really? It was? Prove it.
Another anti-expansion argument that doesn't get made enough is bracket-related. In the offseason, when the tournament seems distant and opaque, we seem to forget how important the bracket is to the postseason's popularity. Frankly, the bracket's relevance to the casual fan can not be understated. More than anything else -- more than the basketball, more than the upsets, more than the drama, more than anything -- it's the reason everyone pays attention to the first, second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament.
This year, it was not uncommon to hear casual fans express confusion about the vagaries of the new First Four format and its impact on bracket picks. Imagine the dismay at a bracket included 96 teams. Imagine if winning your pool meant dealing with byes and No. 24-seeds. How many people would enter ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge then? Why risk losing that cachet?
Anyway, I digress; let's get back to the matter at hand, which is where VCU's run fits in the expansion debate. The short answer: It doesn't. Or, at the very least, it shouldn't.
Davis doesn't make this point, but I will: Virginia Commonwealth's barnstorm through the NCAA tournament has been incredibly, incredibly unlikely. Like, 1-in-200,000 unlikely. Because we're living through it, and because VCU has in many ways been unassumingly good -- they're just beating people, you know? -- it's easy to forget how utterly unlikely it is.
We've had NCAA tournaments before. We know how rare this is. VCU is an outlier, an anecdote, an exception to the rule. Just because that outlier has happened this year, the same year the tournament changed its format, doesn't mean it's likely to happen ever again.
Which is not to say I don't want this sort of miracle run to happen again. Because I do. It's been awesome. But that desire -- the desire for craziness, upsets, capital-M Madness -- has always been well-served with 64, 65, and now 68 teams. One bonkers team taking it to a bonkers degree in the single most bonkers Final Four of all-time isn't a reason to change the NCAA tournament.
Or, put another way: The Rams' run isn't a function of expansion. It's a function of the Rams. Let's not belittle that accomplishment by saying any NIT team could do the same.
Instead, let's continue to ignore the expansion talk forever. The NCAA has its money and its exposure-boosting First Four. Fans are happy with the 68-team bracket. Despite what employment-concerned coaches might say, there is literally no good reason to expand the NCAA tournament.
That was true before VCU. It's still true now.