Why tournament expansion is subtraction by addition

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; D03

Let us begin today, after one of the great weekends in the history of college basketball, with this question: Why would anyone want to change this tournament? It is about as close to perfect as a sporting event can get -- if you forget the endless timeouts, the 20-minute halftimes and the absolutely ridiculous late-night tip-offs. And still the NCAA and the WCA (Whining Coaches of America) want to change it?

To quote the great basketball maven John Patrick McEnroe Junior: You can not be serious!

If the tournament was expanded, teams such as Northern Iowa, Saint Mary's and Cornell would have fewer opportunities to create memories against Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 seeds. Please, for the love of basketball, let someone with a grain of sanity intervene before it's too late.

Then again, it may already be too late. For college presidents, conference commissioners and NCAA administrators, nothing starts the morning like the smell of money. Ask the ACC power brokers, who thought conference expansion was such a swell idea. That's worked out so well that over the past five seasons, the ACC has sent one fewer school to the round of 16 (Duke, North Carolina and Boston College) than the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, Bradley, Southern Illinois and now Northern Iowa.)

Anyway, back to the tournament. What the heck happened to Georgetown? The Hoyas were a maddeningly inconsistent team all season -- good enough to beat Syracuse, Duke, Butler, Temple, Washington, Villanova and Pittsburgh but careless enough to lose at home to South Florida, Old Dominion and Notre Dame (without Luke Harangody), not to mention an awful road loss to Rutgers.

Hot and cold basketball will get you burned at some point in March, and it happened very early for Georgetown. There's just no reason to lose in the first round as a No. 3 seed, especially to a team that finished ninth in the Mid-American Conference. Now John Thompson III has to sweat out the next few weeks wondering if Greg Monroe will return.

There will be no sweating -- figuratively, at least -- for Gary Williams. There was a lot of good in Maryland's season: a tie for first place in the ACC; conference coach of the year for Williams and player of the year for Vasquez. But no matter how thrilling the comeback was on Sunday against Michigan State, no one at Maryland can walk away satisfied with this postseason.

Both losses, the one to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament and the one Sunday to Michigan State, were similar: The Terrapins dug themselves a deep hole and almost escaped it thanks to their press. They pulled many similar escape acts in the regular season. Sooner or later, though, that style catches up with you. Sunday, they fell behind by 16, even though the Spartans' Kalin Lucas got hurt in the first half, before rallying to take the lead late.

Three seniors ended their careers Sunday: Landon Milbourne, Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. Hayes and Milbourne were underrated by most; Vasquez was overrated by many.

That's not to say Vasquez wasn't a wonderful player. He had a fabulous senior season, deserved to be ACC player of the year and hit a lot of big shots, including the one that gave Maryland the lead with six seconds left Sunday. But Vasquez missed a lot of big shots too -- see Georgia Tech, final minute -- and maybe should have found Hayes or Milbourne or the wonderfully talented freshman big man Jordan Williams, on a few more occasions.

Was Vasquez an outstanding college player? Absolutely. But top five in Maryland history? In the same sentence with John Lucas, Len Elmore, Tom McMillen, Buck Williams, Albert King or Len Bias? No. What about Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Steve Blake? The last three led Maryland to 13 NCAA tournament wins during their careers, including a national title and two Final Fours. Vasquez led Maryland to three NCAA tournament wins. This isn't meant to denigrate Vasquez; it's meant to be realistic. He deserves lots of applause going out the door but not the statue some people seem to want to build.

So the local hoops season is over. Sixteen teams are left to decide the national championship. The three best stories remaining are, without question, Cornell, Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's.

What was the selection committee watching when it made Cornell a No. 12 seed? The Big Red's two victories in Jacksonville weren't flukes at all. Cornell absolutely lapped good, well-coached teams in Temple and Wisconsin -- winning by 13 and 18 while trailing for a total of about one minute all weekend. Now it faces Kentucky, and the contrasts are inescapable.

Kentucky point guard John Wall is the prototype one-and-done player, headed for the top five (at least) in the NBA draft in June. He had to sit out his first two college games because he had $800 in travel expenses taken care of when he made "unofficial" visits to several campuses as a junior. His counterpart is Louis Dale, who begged Cornell Coach Steve Donahue to look at him on tape and brought a $400 deposit check with him on his official visit to Cornell. A player giving money to a coach. Talk about role reversal.

Saint Mary's is in the South Region, facing a very solid Baylor team in one game while Duke plays Purdue in the other game. Purdue may be the first No. 4 seed in history to make the Sweet 16 by pulling two "upsets." Few people -- including this one -- expected the Boilermakers to advance this far without Robbie Hummel. Now, it would be foolish to count them out. The same is true of Saint Mary's.

Northern Iowa is in the Midwest and will play Michigan State. With Lucas out, the Spartans are certainly beatable if the Panthers can come down from the high of their remarkable victory over Kansas on Saturday. Ohio State, which plays Tennessee in the other game in St. Louis, has to be considered the favorite in the Midwest, but at this point being the favorite in any region doesn't count for much.

The one region that doesn't have a true Cinderella is the West, if only because Butler is too consistently good to qualify for the role. Should the Bulldogs beat top-seeded Syracuse, they might have a claim on the title. And speaking of teams that are too good to be Cinderella, consider Xavier. The Musketeers, who will play a very good Kansas State team in the other West Region semifinal, are in their third straight Sweet 16.

Let's count all the other teams in the country that have been to three consecutive Sweet 16s: Michigan State. That's the list. That's how tough it is make it to the second week of this tournament year in and year out.

Yet another reason not to change a thing.

For more from the author, visit his blog at http://www.feinsteinonthebrink.

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