Add more games to tourney, not more teams

Rather than expand the NCAA Tournament field to 96 teams, the NCAA should satisfy its corporate sponsors and television partners by making its elite teams play more often in the tournament.

Before I go further, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m against changing the NCAA Tournament. It’s not broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed.

But I’m also a realist. America is a country that bows to corporate interest and ignores the best interest of its people at nearly every turn. The Wall Street bailout was only a symptom of a larger problem. Just as the inevitable tweaking (and dilution) of a hoops tournament everyone adores will be another symptom.

With a product weakened by one-and-done defections and TV over-saturation, the NCAA is exploring ways to hoodwink a network into overpaying for March Madness the way CBS did in 1999 when it coughed up $6 billion for an 11-year deal to broadcast the NCAA Tournament.

The quick-fix is to add more teams/games to the tournament.

It’s no different from McDonald’s adding the McRib to its menu. No one actually knows what’s in the McRib sandwich, but Mickey D’s knows if smothered in enough sauce its brainwashed consumers will gobble up anything chewable.

The NCAA is betting its “Big Dance” brand is just as strong.

Word has already gone out to college coaches to start supporting the idea of tournament expansion. This week I talked with one of the game’s most respected head coaches and he repeated a talking point: “Sixty percent of Division I football teams qualify for a bowl game and only 65 of some 300 college basketball teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament.”

Yep, they’re justifying expansion by pointing out that mediocre football teams get to play in inconsequential bowl games. There are BCS bowl games and then everything else is the N.I.T. of football.

Expand the N.I.T. to 96 teams. We don’t need any more teams in the NCAA Tournament. We probably need less. I was appalled this week watching South Florida, an alleged “bubble” team, knock off DePaul in the Big East tournament without making one basket outside of the paint.

South Florida is a bad basketball team. The Bulls are no fun to watch. Adding them to the NCAA Tournament would not enhance a thing.

Hell, some of the tournament “locks” don’t belong, either. Texas has tremendous talent and the Longhorns were great in December, but do they deserve a reward for losing eight of their last 15 games? You can leave the Missouri Tigers at home, too. Any team that can be blown out by Nebraska on a neutral court doesn’t deserve a dance invitation.

Again, I realize that expansion is inevitable. The NCAA can’t continue to provide support to its welfare sports (non-revenue) without a shiny new, record-setting TV contract. Men’s basketball and football make it possible for the welfare kings and queens to travel the country and compete in events no one pays to see.

But I say don’t add more teams to the NCAA Tournament. Exploit the good teams even more.

After the first weekend and the whittling of the field to a Sweet 16 make the tournament a best-of-three series.

Think about it for a minute. Take your time. I’ll wait.

(Don’t rush. We have plenty of time.)

Nothing changes about the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In the second weekend, there are four predetermined neutral sites that host two best-of-three series. Two sites play on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And two sites play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

This would be great for fans because when they traveled to a site they would be guaranteed two games.

The following weekend would be the Elite Eight weekend hosted at two neutral sites. Same format — a best-of-three series played on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at one site and Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the other.

The next weekend there would be a Final Four at one location. The games could be played on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

I’d make the championship series a home-and-home (Tuesday and Thursday) with the if-necessary third game in Indianapolis (Sunday), the home of the NCAA headquarters.

I know. Some of you think the single-elimination tournament is what makes March Madness great. You think there would be far fewer upsets and Cinderella stories if it was a best-of-three tournament. And you probably think there’s no way sixth-seeded North Carolina State and Jim Valvano win a best-of-three series against Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma.

Generally speaking, the upsets occur in the first weekend, which I wouldn’t change.

As for Valvano and N.C. State or the eighth-seeded 1985 Villanova squad, the more the tournament expands the less likely those stories become. Valvano won the last 52-team tournament. Villanova won the first 64-team tourney.

Expanding the field to 96 favors the top seeds. They would get byes.

What makes the tournament great are great games. The more the top-16 teams faced each other the more great games we’d see.

E-mail Jason or follow him on Twitter. Media requests for Mr. Whitlock should be directed to Fox Sports PR.