O'Neil: More Div. I teams, more competition

Small programs, much like the Ohio Bobcats, have found ways to compete in the NCAA tournament. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A few years ago, I took a road trip with the Alcorn State basketball team to see how the other half of Division I lives.

It wasn’t pretty. Old shoes, team meals in mall food courts and student athletic trainers who weren’t even CPR certified, the world the Braves traveled in was foreign to much of Division I.

So I understand the argument my colleague, Jay BilasInsider, is making about reducing the number of Division I basketball schools by two-thirds. The difference, especially financially, between the top and the bottom is about the same distance between Millionaire’s Row and Skid Row.

But when was the last time you heard a small major or a mid-major athletic director or coach whine about financial disadvantages making it impossible to compete? When was the last time they refused to play a blueblood for fear of the expected 40-point beatdown?

Try never.

No, it is the bluebloods who fret about games where they have ‘everything to lose and nothing to gain,’ an argument that makes absolutely no sense since, unlike college football, one loss does not knock you out of the national championship race.

It is the bluebloods who kvetch about prying open their gold-lined coffers to pay guaranteed money, regardless of the fact that $200,000 is pocket change to them and a financial windfall to their opponents.

So enough pandering.

The top programs already have every competitive advantage -- chartered planes, full-time nutritionists and tutors, one-to-one ratio of manager to player, tricked-out locker rooms and private practice facilities -- and get the best players.

Do we really need to cushion them from the potential blow of a bad loss and deny an opportunity for players who live to don their David get-ups and slay Goliath?

Talk to a mid-major player or a small-major guy before a big game. You won’t hear them cowering in a corner. They believe they can win. They believe in the upset. Not just in March, but in November, too. Ask their coaches about their challenges and yes, they’ll acknowledge them but they’ll also shrug their shoulders and move on.

All they ask for is a chance. By halving Division I we are eliminating the chance to compete, which at last check is what athletics is supposed to be about.

Hell, if it were just about the great versus the great, the Pittsburgh Pirates would have been kicked out of Major League Baseball years ago.

The current problem with college basketball is not that there are too many teams; it’s that too few great players stick around. If you want to find the root evil to the lack of consistency in the game, look no further than the NBA age limit. Kentucky defied everything but gravity by winning this national championship.

There are more good teams now than ever because there is so little continuity at the top.

That’s not the little guys’ fault.

In fact, that’s his opportunity, a chance to build a team and ultimately a brand the old-fashioned way, with four-year players who get better individually and collectively.

So this wouldn’t be just about killing March -- Myron Medcalf took care of that part of the issue here -- it would be about killing growth as well.

Good programs -- not just good-in-the-moment teams that have their shining moment and disappear -- are blossoming all over the country thanks to talented coaches (Shaka Smart), talented players (Isaiah Canaan) or both (Butler). Those schools are here to stay now, but they certainly all weren’t in the conversation 10 years ago. Had they been relegated below the top 150 and therefore out of Division I, just think about what the game would have been denied.

More, what future teams are we cutting off below the knees and what dregs are we keeping? Does DePaul get to stay over Mississippi Valley State? Because frankly I’d much rather see Sean Woods’ team continue to work its tail off to stay relevant than the Blue Demons' endless struggle to become relevant.

And here’s a final question: Just who do we think these top teams are going to play?

Because last I checked, it ain’t going to be each other.

Kansas got ticked with Missouri for deigning to play in another conference and now is through with the Tigers; Texas A&M had the audacity to move out from under the thumb of Texas, so now the Longhorns and Aggies are through; and Kentucky ditched a home-and-home with Indiana in its effort to become a non-traditional program.

Bet folks who long have celebrated those eight national championships and decades of success are confused by that one.

So why bother? What is the bottom-line gain in fewer Division I teams, besides feeding the top-heavy beasts that already are stuffed and denying others a chance to come to the table?

Yes, a chasm exists in the class distinctions of Division I. There will always be a No. 1 and a No. 300-plus.

Of course there always will be a No. 1 and a No. 100 or No. 1 and No. 150 and over time, the divide between whoever is at the top and wherever we decide is the bottom will stretch just as wide.

Someone in sports always wins; someone in sports always loses.

Let’s at least allow everyone a chance to be in the game.