ATLANTA — Two years ago, moments after Maryland had lost an ACC tournament quarterfinal game to Georgia Tech, Gary Williams sat in a small room at Greensboro Coliseum killing time while his players fulfilled their media obligations across the hall in the Terrapins’ locker room.
Not surprisingly, Williams was fuming. His team had tied with Duke for first place in the regular season but then had come out completely flat against the Yellow Jackets, allowing Georgia Tech to build a huge lead that Maryland never quite overcame.
In moments like those, Williams tended to be angry at anyone and everyone. This was no different. I happened to be sitting with him and I mentioned that, in spite of the loss, his team would probably be no worse than a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Yeah, fine, I know,” he said.
Then I made a mistake. I brought up the simmering rumors that the NCAA was planning to expand the field for 2011 to 96 teams.
“Just think,” I said. “Next year at this time you might have a first-round bye to play the winner of the game between the 14th-place team from the Big East and the sixth-place team from the Missouri Valley.”
Williams didn’t find the comment amusing. “You see, that’s the problem with all you anti-expansionists,” he said. “You don’t understand what it means to players to say they played in the NCAA tournament. Fifty years from now, the guys on my team this year will talk about making it to the NCAA tournament no matter how far we go once it starts.”
“That’s because you had to work to get in,” I said. “You had to be good. You had to beat real teams. If you expand to 96 and you’re in a major conference, all you have to do is field a team and you’ll probably get in. What’s the big deal about that?”
As it turned out, the tournament was expanded to only 68 teams for 2011 in large part because the NCAA didn’t want to take the publicity hit from the “anti-expansionists” (I was not, by any stretch, the only one), who would have correctly seen the expansion to 96 as just another money grab. Fortunately, Turner Sports was talked into dumping huge money into the new television contract, and the new Turner/CBS combo deal allowed the NCAA to get the money it wanted while only expanding by three teams.
Except that is still too many teams.
The NCAA tournament should invite 64 teams — period. To begin with, that means no silly extra round of games — the so-called “First Four” — that teams have to go through to advance to what is now called the second round even though 60 teams are playing their first game.
Beyond that, there just aren’t that many good basketball teams nowadays worthy of the honor — and it should be an honor — to play in the NCAA tournament. Have you checked the list of potential at-large teams lately? If you are a bracket geek, come up with 37 teams that you think truly deserve to see their names go up on the board Sunday night.
Is there anyone outside of Seattle who thinks Washington — the Pacific-12 regular season champion that lost to middling Oregon State in the tournament quarterfinals — deserves a bid? How about teams such asConnecticut and South Florida? Let’s go down the list of South Florida’s impressive wins: Louisville. That’s it. U-Conn. finished 8-10 in a Big East that had some truly bad teams at the bottom and then padded its record with Big East tournament wins over awful DePaul and run-of-the-mill West Virginia. In their last 16 games, the Huskies were 6-10. The Huskies’ four victories before the tournament were against Seton Hall, DePaul (again), Villanova and Pittsburgh.
And yet their name has a good chance to be on the board Sunday night.
The point here isn’t to pick on the teams mentioned above, but rather to point out the dearth of truly quality teams that are on the bubble. Miami is campaigning hard for a bid even though it has one truly notable win this season: an overtime victory at Duke (although it seems as if half the world won at Duke this season). Its other two wins even worth discussing were at home: over Florida State and Massachusetts — which finished tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10.
Here’s why the ’Canes may very well get their wish: The so-called Big Six conferences have no depth this season and the committee is loath to load up on on at-large teams from the smaller conferences. Sure, Drexel may get in, but the big boys are already whining about that possibility. Oral Roberts, which won 27 games, will get some consideration but should probably be booking travel for the National Invitation Tournament. The same goes for Iona, which won the regular season title in the MAAC.
So what does that leave us with? A second team from the Pac-12, which if truth be told probably deserves zero bids this season? Nine or 10 from the Big East, which probably has six truly worthy teams? Six from the ACC, which should get five at the very most? The SEC? Heck, the case could be made it should only get three bids. It will probably end up with five. The Big 12 and the Big Ten deserve six each, but do not be surprised if the committee gives a sympathy bid to Northwestern because the presence of the Wildcats, who have never been in the event, would be a TV feel-good story. But Northwestern has a win over Michigan State and not much else.
Even if you add Washington, Northwestern, Miami, U-Conn. and South Florida, the total number of deserving at-large teams from the major conference comes to 29. That leaves eight bids. If they all went to smaller conferences that would be fine. But they won’t. Come on down, Seton Hall!
If you are Gary Williams and other defenders of expansion, the answer to all of this skepticism is two words: Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams made the tournament’s expansion look good a year ago when they went from the First Four to the Final Four. So you can argue we would have missed out on that story without expansion.
True — but only because the committee vastly misjudged VCU because of its Big Six bias. Last year’s CAA clearly deserved three bids, even in a 64-team field. The best one can say for expansion is that it may allow the committee to get away with a mistake — as in VCU’s case. It should be remembered that Southern California and Alabama-Birmingham also got in with the extra bids, and they clearly should have been watching the unveiling of the NIT bracket that night.
So Williams was right. I’m guilty of being an anti-expansionist. And when the field goes up Sunday night, my guess is I won’t be the only one who feels that way.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/feinstein. For more , visit his blog at feinsteinonthebrink.com.