End March Sadness: Let 'Em All Play

Jarvis Varnado and Dee  Bost of Mississippi State i i

Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, left, and Dee Bost played valiantly in a 75-74 OT loss to Kentucky in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. It was the second time this year Mississippi State has lost in overtime to a Kentucky team ranked second in the nation. But the MSU Bulldogs aren't invited to the Big Dance. Wade Payne/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Wade Payne/AP
Jarvis Varnado and Dee  Bost of Mississippi State

Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, left, and Dee Bost played valiantly in a 75-74 OT loss to Kentucky in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. It was the second time this year Mississippi State has lost in overtime to a Kentucky team ranked second in the nation. But the MSU Bulldogs aren't invited to the Big Dance.

Wade Payne/AP

March Madness remains March Sadness for many college basketball fans who won't have any particular rooting interest in the epic, TV-fueled extravaganza that has become the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Among the roughly 270 schools excluded from this year's play are some real heavyweights: North Carolina, which won last year; UCLA which has won 11 times; and Connecticut, which has won the title twice since 1999.

I say it's time to let 'em all play. All 330-odd NCAA Division 1 schools should have a ticket to the Big Dance.

Frank Deford Commentary

I know what you're thinking: That would take forever. In fact, it would take just two additional games to expand a 64-team tournament to a 256-team tournament. If you factor in byes, that's no big deal.

Unlike most state high school basketball championships — where every school gets at least a first-round game — the NCAA has always drawn the line somewhere. Since 1985, 64 teams have filled the first-round brackets.

But there's nothing sacred about 64 (or 65, if you count Tuesday night's "play-in" game). In fact, there is a move afoot to expand the tournament again, possibly as early as next season. The New York Times reported recently that a larger field could be as few as 68 teams or as many as 96. The potential for TV money is driving that debate.

I would welcome a larger field as a step in the right direction, but it's still too selective. Whether it's Team 69 or Team 97, somebody would be out there with a legitimate claim to be more deserving than many of the teams in the field.

The relatively recent addition of the single play-in game highlights many flaws in the current arrangement. It always features the two teams that are judged to be the worst in the field of 65. This year Arkansas Pine Bluff will take on Winthrop for the honor of advancing to a genuine "first round" game against Duke.

The play-in game exists because 30 conferences around the nation get one automatic bid each to the NCAAs — a faint nod to the notion that the tournament is about equal opportunity. But the play-in game always features schools from smaller conferences that simply aren't likely to fare well against bigger competition.

Those 30 automatic bids leave 35 "at-large" selections out of roughly 300 schools. Believe me, Einstein would not be able to fully comprehend the calculus used to determine who gets picked.

Incidentally, some of those automatic bids are won by outright flukes, because most have been determined in recent years by conference tournaments. These add layers of TV revenue and fan interest, but they also create unexpected winners.

I like these post-season league playoffs, in general. But they are made suspect by the reality that some teams don't need to win even a single game in the conference tournament to reach the NCAA field of 64.

For example, Purdue — a team that stormed out of the gates early in the season and has now fallen on difficult times, in part through injury — scored a humiliating 11 points in the first half of a thumping by Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. The game meant little to Purdue, which was safely in the NCAAs. But it was huge for Minnesota, which appeared to seal an at-large bid with the semi-final win despite being blown out by Ohio State in the conference final.

I'll admit that letting everybody play doesn't eliminate the selection process entirely. Evening out the brackets would require decision-making, including some first-round byes.

But the beauty of opening the field is that every team would get a chance — however slim — to play and win.

Todd Holzman is supervising senior editor at NPR.org. The Ohio State Buckeyes are his particular rooting interest in this year's NCAA tournament.

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