The tournament’s been memorable — so leave it alone


VCU fans cheered on their team’s improbable run to the Final Four in Houston. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

I never bought into the theory that no one would watch Butler vs. Virginia Commonwealth in the men’s Final Four, and I’m happy to see that I was right.

Saturday’s early game between Butler and VCU drew an 8.3 rating and averaged 14.2 million viewers; the later game between Kentucky and Connecticut drew a 9.5 and 16.7 million. The average of 8.9 and a 17 share are CBS’s best numbers since 2005.

We like to think of America as a country where the underdog can prevail, and not just in sports — but some recoil in horror if, God forbid, we have to watch it happen on national TV. There is a school of thought somewhere out there that says college basketball fans are interested only in seeing the big-name teams. But upstarts such as Butler last season and VCU this season prove that notion is wrong.

Now perhaps we can also put to rest the notion the Rams’ run to the Final Four is a great argument for a 96-team field.

This year’s tournament was one of the best in recent memory precisely because the NCAA chose to limit the field to 68. VCU deserved to get in, and thankfully the committee got it right. Fans will quibble every year with the last four or five teams in the field, but once the games get underway, those nitpicks are usually forgotten.

The theory that if 68 is good, 96 will be great is just wrong. It’s the American Way to want more, bigger, better, louder, faster. But a 96-team tournament would be on par with the KFC Double Down Sandwich — you know, with two pieces of chicken replacing the bread. In other words, the 96-team field would be excessive, unnecessary — and definitely bloated.

The Rams’ performance was impressive, but even more so when you consider they had to play an extra game just to get to the first weekend. Add 28 teams, and chances are teams like VCU will have to go straight from a conference tournament to the equivalent of play-in games while the big boys get byes.

Of course, CBS will counter with this: Overall ratings for the NCAA tournament are up more than 9 percent over last spring. So if showing all 66 games — with one to go last night — on four networks garners those numbers, think about what adding an extra layer or two would do.

Well, it would dilute the quality of the tournament, for starters. I’m sure we call can think of two or three teams that deserved to be in — but we can name a few who probably had no business being there, either. Were there really 28 additional worthy teams out there? There were not.

It would also diminish the achievement of making the field. It would be the college sports equivalent of giving everyone a trophy for participating. Making the NCAA tournament should mean something.

With 68 teams, just eight teams have to play an extra round. That would change dramatically with 96 teams, making the bottom of the bracket work harder just to stay even. The relative fairness of the tournament is another of its great qualities.

The NCAA showed surprising restraint last year when it decided to hold off on the 96-team idea — and it was rewarded with a 14-year, $11 billion contract by CBS. I hope the NCAA continues to exercise some rare good judgment and leaves well enough alone.

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