When the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it birthed the most exhilarating, most electrifying playoff in the world.
How’s that saying go again? Something like “strive for perfection, settle for excellence”?
The word “perfect” is tossed out all the time in sports, and the assumption is that it’s unattainable.
It is something meant to chase, not catch, like a mechanical rabbit in a greyhound race.
But there was a time in the sports realm when perfection was personified — a 15-year stretch in which nothing needed tweaking, fine-tuning or adjusting. It was from 1985 to 2000, when the NCAA tournament gave us the perfect number: 64.
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Wednesday, the NCAA announced that the four play-in games preceding the Big Dance will no longer be known as the “first round,” but rather the “First Four.” Aside from changing how scribes and broadcasters refer to certain games in the tourney’s opening days, this news has all the significance of “snow expected in Greenland.”
But it did get me thinking about the absurdity of today’s format and the terror of what may be next. Please, NCAA — don’t do anything more.
When the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it birthed the most exhilarating, most electrifying playoff in the world. It was an experiment that, like most changes to the status quo, was met with trepidation but resulted in triumph.
There were upsets everywhere. There were unknowns all around. And in the end, No. 8 Villanova won the national championship and remains the lowest seed ever to do so.
What followed were three decades of adrenaline-laced hysteria that no postseason anywhere can match. “One Shining Moment,” which, without context, sounds like a Sesame Street track, spawns tears around the country annually.
Bryce Drew, Keith Smart and Lorenzo Charles went from “who?” to “whoa!” because of the Dance and remain icons of the game. So why would anybody want to mess with this?
I ask because 15 years ago, someone decided the field should expand from 64 teams to 65 so as to quell outrage from potential snubs. Sorry, but you can expand the field to 346, and there would still be controversy surrounding the sole squad left out of the fun.
Even so, that didn’t stop the NCAA from expanding it to 68 teams in 2011, which still leaves fans and pundits fuming at the selection committee year after year. Is there any reason to think this trend won’t continue?
Maybe at 33, I’m having my first real “get off my lawn” moment. I know that, 22 years ago, there was media railing against MLB for doubling the number of playoff teams, and that ended up reinvigorating the sport. But if the NCAA ever ended up putting 80, or 96, or 128 teams in the Division I college basketball tournament, it would sully one of sports’ true gems.
The expansion to 68 was like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Anything further would be a spray-painted catastrophe.
But Matt, you do realize that the Huskies may directly benefit from the 68-team field, right?
I do. But oh well. There was a time when only 32 teams got in, which today would be five Power-5 Conference winners and 27 others. That was more than fair in determining a true national champion based on the regular season. If you can’t squeeze into a field of 64, that’s a you problem, not a them problem.
But Calkins, do you not remember the 2011 tourney, when VCU reached the Final Four despite being in one of the play-in games? That wouldn’t have happened without expansion.
I do remember. And I know something similar would happen if the tournament expanded. That’s the nature of parity-filled college basketball. But come on — show me a tournament in the past 15 years that didn’t produce a darling or two. Maybe it was George Mason, or Bradley, or Stephen Curry’s Davidson squad. Cinderella comes about magically — you don’t have to manufacture her.
Come on, think about the joy all those extra teams would experience if the field grew. And think about all the euphoric fan bases there would be if their teams, who otherwise would be excluded, got to compete in the biggest spectacle in college sports. Hate to break it to you, but more is merrier, bigger is better.
No, think about how much more rewarding it is to get into the tournament now, and how making it would spark true euphoria. And think about how watered down it would be if it grew. If a 16 ever beat a 1 today, it would send shock waves from NYC to Cali. If a 24 seed beat a 15 seed in the first round, then went on to beat a 1 seed … meh. It just wouldn’t be as cool.
No, the NCAA tournament is the only event in sports guaranteed to produce the chilla, drama and cheer we so collectively crave, and tampering with it would be Madness in every sense of the word.
OK, fine, I’m sold. But why are you writing about this now?
Pitchers and catchers really need to report soon.