Small guys a part of Division I fabric
We all abandoned our responsibilities -- albeit temporarily -- that day.
National writers, local beat guys, janitors, students and administrators all gathered in a lounge at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-March.
We couldn't believe it. On high-definition televisions mounted throughout the venue, Norfolk State had 2-seed Missouri -- a Final Four pick in 90 percent of our brackets, it appeared -- on the ropes. With every clutch shot and play in the final minutes, we were transfixed -- and continued to be later that night when another 15-seed (Lehigh) slew mighty Duke.
We had no bias toward a particular school. We were celebrating college basketball's idiosyncrasy, the one that draws the obsessed and the passive together for the most exciting postseason in sports. The little guy can still slay the big guy when it matters most.
What if the little guy was taken away, though?
That's the hope of my colleague Jay Bilas, who wrote a column that proposes the reduction of Division I teams from 345 to a "reasonable size" of between 100 to 150 teams.
Jay is a staunch advocate for college basketball and makes a lot of keen observations and suggested fixes to the NCAA structure that I'm fully on board with. He cares about the sport and wants to make it better.
But we couldn't disagree more on this particular subject.
One of the arguments made in axing two-thirds of Division I is that Cinderella is "not driving the bus" when it comes to the popularity of the NCAA tournament.
Huh? In my opinion, it's one of the only things driving the popularity of the NCAA tournament.
Lehigh and Norfolk State and VCU and George Mason represent so many of us. They're not given an NCAA tournament bid based on a .500 record in a power conference. They're not admitted due to one Top 25 win in November.
The "little guys" try to establish a regular-season schedule that puts them in a position to earn a rare at-large bid. The selection committee doesn't care about their regular-season conference titles (see Drexel). They want more.
So they're pitted against the best in their respective leagues during an all-or-nothing postseason tournament. And after that, they're granted a key to the most exciting event in sports, one that captivates the national attention span for weeks.
It makes the sport relevant to folks who couldn't care less in the months that precede it. They watch in March because there's always a chance that the "little guys" who've clawed and fought and scrapped their way into the field of 68 can do even more.
They're intrigued by the possibility of an upset. That's what entices casual fans.
Removing those teams would take the flavor out of March Madness. And including a few from this new Division II, as Bilas suggests, would seem to me like just a token gesture.
Yes, lopsided nonconference results are the norm in the early part of the season. Just as they are in college football. But where's the proof that the power schools would play each other with this new and reduced format?
And what's the cutoff, and how do you separate the smaller programs that "belong" from those that don't?
This theory reminds me of my sixth-grade project on a future that would be defined by flying cars. We're still on the road.
My point is that what sounds good doesn't always look good in reality. Let's stop proposing this idea of a smaller field and instead come up with more proactive and specific plans to improve the game in a variety of ways.
I agree that the smaller Division I schools are at a disadvantage. And many can't compete with their wealthier, more talented counterparts in the power conferences.
However, that's the beauty of college basketball. They only have to outplay their stronger foes for 40 minutes. And as long as there's a 3-point line, Goliaths will fall.
Plus, the smaller schools have filters. Championship Week and postseason conference tournaments aim to distinguish between those that are worthy and those that are not. (If only we had a better filter for the tournament teams from major conferences that live on one lukewarm nonconference victory.)
Look, this is not the BCS. We don't have a football problem. Two different dilemmas.
Expansion or reduction of the NCAA tournament field is one issue. But to remove Division I college basketball teams that make the sport exciting and relevant to the masses would be a mistake.
We're still talking about Norfolk State and Lehigh. Haven't heard much about Ohio State's run to the Final Four since I left the Big Easy.
The images that linger from the NCAA tournament often involve Cinderellas. Most fans can't tell you who Michigan State knocked off in the third round (St. Louis), but Norfolk State and Lehigh were elevated by a pair of program-altering victories. They defined the spirit of the 2012 NCAA tournament.
Butler wouldn't have left the Horizon League without those back-to-back national title appearances. Coach Brad Stevens started something that will lead to a much brighter future for that program. And the Atlantic 10 recognized that.
Bilas suggests the Bulldogs would warrant some exception clause with the big boys.
But what happens to the next Butler?
His proposal would eliminate that program before it ever had a chance to prove its value in the postseason. If this reduction to 100-150 schools had been put in place a decade ago, would Butler, George Mason or VCU have even made the cut?
I don't have a problem with 300-plus teams because I know how hard these coaches work on every level. I know how hard the players work. I know how much their fans care. I know what they mean for the sport.
I know that Sean Woods, a former Kentucky star who's the head coach at Mississippi Valley State, will earn a job with a power school in the coming years. And he'll do so after a lot of hard work and sweat at a SWAC school with fewer resources than just about any program in the country. His Delta Devils program practiced in a middle school gym for part of the season.
Are you telling me those guys don't deserve a chance -- not a guarantee -- to compete for gold (in front of President Obama) after all they did during the regular season to reach Dayton?
I remember the way Four McGlynn's teammates stood and cheered after the Vermont star completed a postgame interview that followed a great outing in a First Four win over Lamar.
I get emails from Middle Tennessee State fans. Tweets from VCU supporters. They're the character of the NCAA tournament. They're the reason that March means so much to people without a true investment in the full season.
Author John Steinbeck said, "If a story is not about the hearer, he [or she] will not listen A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting -- only the deeply personal and familiar."
This applies to college basketball.
Triumph over great obstacles is a common theme that permeates the sport, especially in March.
If you strip away the underdog, you'd lose that.
And the bus, Mr. Bilas, would never leave the lot.