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Monday, May 3, 2010
Expansion has never been popular

By Eamonn Brennan

The NCAA tournament has expanded before. After all, the idea of a 64-team tournament didn't spring forth from some random bit of human genius -- it took time, and several iterations of the NCAA tournament before the current 65-team field we all know and love came to be.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton interviewed Wayne Duke -- the first staffer hired when the NCAA came into being in 1952 and a longtime member of the selection committee -- to see how the NCAA lifer felt about the latest expansion to 68 teams. Not only was Duke happy about it, he also shared some of the history of past expansion. Turns out, there were a fair share of naysayers in early expansion efforts, too:
To gradually expand the tournament in the past sparked little opposition. Not that those expansions were universally applauded. Duke recalled UCLA Coach John Wooden and Athletic Director J.D. Morgan opposing expansion in the 1970s, perhaps because a larger field would make it more difficult for the Bruins — or any dynasty — to win championships.

As a committee member (and commissioner of the Big Eight and later the Big Ten conferences), Duke also heard the argument that expanding the tournament would weaken the field. Duke disagreed and lobbied to extend automatic qualifying bids to more conferences. He recalled the year the Ohio Valley Conference learned it would have a team in every NCAA Tournament.

When the NCAA started noodling the idea of 96 teams, outrage ensued. As a response to that outrage, the pro-expansion folks (which was pretty much just the people at the NCAA proposing expansion and the coaches who thought expansion would make their lives easier) often referenced this history -- that the tournament wasn't static, that it had gotten bigger before, that 96 teams was the inevitable next step in an ever-evolving competition.

So it's probably worth pointing out a couple of things here. For one, NCAA tournament expansion was unpopular back in the day, but Duke makes clear that it wasn't nearly as unpopular as the 96-team idea. Second of all, we're at a point now where we have, for better or worse, a tournament that makes perfect sense. It's entertaining. It's mathematically sound. It's fair. Past tournaments expanded for good reason -- they moved alongside the explosion in growth in the sport. For the most part, that growth has stalled, and any college basketball fan can look at the current climate and see that 96 teams is at least 20 more than the current field of 347 teams need to settle a champion. Adding to it wasn't the matter of natural evolution. It was just a bad idea.

So, yes, NCAA tournament expansion was always unpopular. The difference is our modern distaste for expansion is far less rooted in tradition. In 2010, that unpopularity was warranted.

(HT: Beyond The Arc)