Will tourney expansion ruin the regular season?


Um, no. It won't.

The idea is pervasive, however, and it's probably worth shooting down. There are good reasons to be against expanding the NCAA tournament. Maybe you don't want questionable teams like, say, this year's Florida Gators to sneak into the tournament and debase it with the corrosive power of their mediocrity. I'm not sure this is the soundest argument in the world, either, but bottom line: We've got a good thing going with the NCAA tournament. Changing it is a risk. It's really that simple. Why mess with a good thing?

This is the basic point of all anti-expansion arguments. As with any argument, simply saying "don't change anything!" is not a particularly strong point of view. You have to come up with reasons why expansion is actively bad for college basketball, and one of those oft-cited reasons is that expanding the tournament will ruin the regular season. We won't need it anymore. It will expire. Cease to be.

Sorry, guys. Not true. The regular season will be just fine -- but like that dude from "Star Trek" and "Reading Rainbow" always used to say, "Beam me up, Scotty." Er, wrong quote. It was: "Don't take my word for it." In other words, let's go to John Gasaway, filling in this week at the Mid-Majority, for a pretty darned reasonable take on why the regular season will be just fine when (yes: when) the NCAA decides to line its pockets with the delicious millions brought by expanding the tournament to 96 teams:

As criticism of expansion has filled the airwaves, I've been amazed and a little embarrassed to find that apparently I've been following college basketball the wrong way all these years. If I'm understanding this correctly, the raison d'etre of the regular season is merely to fix one's attention solely and exclusively on bubble teams. [...]

With a 96-team field, the quest for mere inclusion would indeed move to a different set of less formidable teams. But beyond inclusion teams will still want the best seed they can get. And in a new world order with 96 teams a first-round bye would be particularly prized and would in all likelihood spawn its own new variant of bracketology and bubble watching: Has Team X secured a bye? Lastly I do have to wonder if conference rivalries will really become such desiccated husks simply because the tournament has expanded. Will Saint Mary's really decide it suddenly doesn't care very much either way about beating Gonzaga in Moraga? Somehow I doubt it.

There you go, folks. Now you can rest easy. The NCAA tournament may be getting bigger, but that doesn't mean we need the regular season any less. If anything, we need it more! Regular-season games are still going to decide everything about the NCAA tournament -- who gets what seed, who makes it in to the 96-team field, which team gets a bye (assuming byes exist), which team plays where, and, as it always has, which teams eventually progress to the Sweet 16. It'll have all the features the current regular season has. You'll barely notice the difference.

Do I think there are 96 teams worthy of playing in the NCAA tournament every year? Not really. But that doesn't mean we'll be able to pay any less attention to making sure we get the best 96 teams -- mediocre at the margins though they may be -- into the tournament. We still need bubble vigilance. That feature of college basketball isn't going anywhere.

Plus, Northwestern will finally make the field! So that's kind of exciting.