This column appears in the March 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THE SELECTION COMMITTEE will tell you that the NCAA Tournament starts in Dayton on March 15 with the First Four, a by-product of the new 68-team format. Rather than one play-in game, in which two small schools fight for the right to get stomped by Ohio State a couple nights later, we'll now be treated to four games featuring eight teams that, had any been banished to the NIT, couldn't complain.
So will begin another quality vs. quantity argument in the 21st-century sports landscape. The Tourney, virtually static in structure for 26 years, has grown into a cultural institution. So, for one generation of fans, bringing more mediocre teams into the field is like adding stars on the flag for commonwealths and territories.
And make no mistake, this is just the beginning. The NCAA's deal with Turner Sports -- starting this year, Tournament games will run on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV -- allows for the addition of more teams. Last year the NCAA considered expanding the field to 96, which would put a lot of amateur bracketologists in a foul mood. "There are already lots of raised eyebrows when a team wins its conference tournament after going, say, 14-17," says Bill Sutton, professor of sports marketing at the University of Central Florida.
As the first step to a larger expansion, the First Four won't take the Tourney to a new level. "Right now,
people's mind-set is to not put a lot of importance on the play-in game," says Bill Glenn, a senior vice president at the Marketing Arm, a Dallas sports marketing company. "To put any importance on those games, fans are going to have to buy in. There's going to have to be equity."
A few extra play-in games amount to little more than TV inventory: The four top seeds of last season's NIT, teams that may have been in a 2010 First Four, averaged 11 losses. A 96-team field, meanwhile, would make the Dance resemble the BCS, which gives the impression of putting profits front and center by seemingly creating a bowl game for every interested corporate sponsor.
No doubt expansion is all about the money, but rather than looking like it's trying to please corporate America, the NCAA should also try to please fan America.
Translation: Let every D1 team into the Tourney, all 335 eligible teams, regardless of conference or record. Yes, in an era when bigger is thought to be better in everything from burgers to flat-screens, the folks who run the Big Dance are thinking too small. "I think the old Indiana high school tournament format would work better," says UCF's Sutton. "The more Davids you have, the more chances [for upsets]. People like this. It's directly linked to March Madness."
Blowing out the brackets may sound crazy, but it isn't. Expanding to 256 teams would mean just one more weekend; including all 335 D1 teams would require just one additional round of play-in games. Up until now, the Tourney has been an ideal combination of function and fantasy: Early rounds, where slingshots abound, capture the imagination; the Philistine states of the hoops world bring it all home; and in between, lots of teams are
forgotten. So what's another couple hundred?
Doesn't America love rooting for the little guy? The most talked about moments of the first two rounds of last year's Tourney were seismic 3-pointers from giant-killer Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa, including the clincher against overall top seed Kansas. After that, although the stakes were higher, viewership didn't jump noticeably until the Elite Eight, when Final Four berths were on the line and the Cinderellas had gone to bed. Interest in the middle of the tournament doesn't extend much beyond the point spreads.
The irony is that the growing size and scope of college sports threatens to destroy the veneer of amateurism and purity that's left. But giving TV everything it could ask for -- the mother of all brackets -- could be the best way to protect what fans love. Most won't notice this year's three-team tiptoe toward more, but keeping the new status quo will be impossible. The road to 96 teams is filled with potholes. But look beyond that and the road to 335 could be smooth as a Jimmer J.
Bomani Jones hosts "The Morning Jones" on Sirius 98, contributes to ESPN.com's Page 2 and is a frequent guest on "Around The Horn."