While most of America is still aglow from a scintillating weekend of college hoops, and as we gear up for the Final Four, a distant chorus is clearing its collective throat as it prepares to drop a piece of profanity on the season's culminating weekend. I'm talking about the E word.
I know what you're thinking: We settled this debate last year, didn't we? Well, get ready to have it again. VCU's mad dash from the First Four to the Final Four plays right into the hands of those people -- mostly coaches -- who still want the field to go to 96 teams instead of 68. The argument, which will be posed most prominently by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, will go something like this:
If the tournament didn't expand to 68, VCU wouldn't have been in it. And even with the field at 68, a lot of people think they shouldn't have gotten in. That proves that there are a lot of really good teams out there who deserve to be in the tournament. Going to 96 is the only way to make sure all those teams get a chance to do what VCU has done.
At first glance, it's a powerful argument. Upon closer inspection, the idea of a 96-team tournament is as bad now as it was a year ago. Let us revisit all the reasons why:
• It would dilute the tournament. It was hard enough to get people to care about the First Four doubleheaders that were played on a Tuesday and Wednesday night. Imagine if there were 16 games each of those days, followed by 48 more from Thursday to Sunday. Most people who aren't college basketball coaches or nerdy sportswriters have real jobs. If we had that many games on four consecutive weekdays, it would be impossible to get folks to pay close attention. The whole thing will become a blur, and most of the games would be forgettable. The current setup is a classic case of less being more.
• It would destroy the regular season. This is already a monumental challenge for college hoops (and it'd get even steeper if the NFL ever decided to expand to an 18-game regular season, pushing the Super Bowl back into mid-February). Without the annual will-they-or-won't-they bubble talk down the stretch, casual fans will have even less reason to pay attention to what happens in every other month but March.
• It would diminish the accomplishment of making the tournament. The fact that good teams get left out of the NCAA tournament every year is what makes it so special. What's the big deal in making the field if every remotely mediocre team is invited? And make no mistake, that's exactly what would happen. A lot of mediocre teams, and plenty of bad ones, would get in. That doesn't help anyone except the men who coach them, and I'm not convinced it would help those coaches all that much.
• Everyone does have the same chance VCU does. We don't need to take the NCAA tournament to 96 teams because it already includes 345. The NCAA extends automatic bids to all 31 conferences in Division I. Each conference gets to decide whether to award its bid to the regular season champion or the tournament champ. All but the Ivy League give it to the tournament champions, which means even if you bumble through the entire regular season you are still eligible to play your way into the NCAA tournament. You can't get more inclusive than that.
• The public doesn't want it. The NCAA took a long, hard look at going to 96 last year in concert with the television networks who were bidding for the tournament. They floated the trial balloon and it got shot down -- emphatically. Aside from a bunch of coaches and a small handful of commentators, the response from fans and media was overwhelmingly negative. When the NCAA announced it was expanding the tournament to 68 instead of 96, the sigh of relief was palpable.
Here is where Boeheim and other 96ers riposte with a falsehood -- namely, that there was also a great deal of public resistance when the NCAA tournament was expanded in the past, yet after it happened people were happy. I happen to have a unique perspective on this because I wrote a book about the 1979 championship game between Magic and Bird and how it spurred the growth of the tournament. Between 1978 and '85, the tournament expanded numerous times, starting at 32 teams and ending up at 64. As I researched that period in depth, I did not come across a single article or quote that criticized those changes. Quite the contrary. In my book I quoted a 1983 New York Times article that referred to the tournament as "perhaps the fastest-growing sports event in the country." The prevailing reaction was excitement, not despair. So if Boeheim or anyone else tries to use this line of reasoning, I would challenge them to produce the evidence that expansion was resisted in the past.
The fact is, there was only one good reason to potentially expand the NCAA tournament to 96 teams: money. If the TV networks were going to pony up that much more dough to produce that many more games, it would have been worth it. Yet, the NCAA managed to get a 61 percent rights increase in a horrible economic environment without having to dilute the tournament, diminish the regular season and piss off the public. So let's hope this 96-seat train gets scuttled before it leaves the station. That will allow those of us who cherish this tournament the way it is to savor what is shaping up to be a truly memorable Final Four.
Uh ... (cough) ... yes I am. Here goes nothing.
Look, I'm absolutely thrilled that VCU is in the Final Four -- thrilled for the team, their fans and this sport that I love. My only point is this: Whatever opinion you had two-and-a-half weeks ago about the Selection Committee's decisions should not be altered by what has happened in the tournament. The committee's mission is not to project what teams will do after Selection Sunday. Its job is to assess teams based on how they performed during the season.
If you believed, as I did, that VCU should not have been given an at-large bid based on the fact that they lost seven games in their conference, had three losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 of the RPI and dropped four of their last five regular season games (including the finale at home to James Madison), then you have to stick by that argument. None of those facts have changed because the Rams won five more games. To argue otherwise now is to take the easy way out.
Yes, the committee has every right to feel good about its decision to include VCU, but that is a dangerous game to play. VCU's wins do not validate its bid any more than Louisville's loss to Morehead State in the second round invalidates its bid. The same goes for the tired conference overrated/underrated arguments. Just because the Big East flopped the first weekend doesn't mean the league did not deserve 11 teams (especially considering the 11th team, Marquette, made mincemeat of Xavier in the second round and reached the Sweet 16). By the same token, I disagreed with the current committee chair, Gene Smith, when he recently told me that he felt good when all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four in 2008. The tournament is a wild, exciting, unpredictable crap shoot. That's what makes it so great. Once the first games tip off, it's a whole new season.
I recognize this is a tough argument to make in light of what VCU has done, so let me close with an important concession. Those of us who make our living by criticizing what the committee does each year should take a long time to digest the huge piece of humble pie that Shaka Smart and his guys have served up. In the days leading up to Selection Sunday, I issued several calls for civility, pleading with colleagues and fans to disagree with the committee without being disagreeable. Too many people did not heed that call. Hopefully next year we can all find a way to voice our opinions without being condescending as we breathlessly fulminate in our certitude. It's not easy to admit, but just because we media types feel strongly about something doesn't mean we're right.
• I'm still not sure people have fully locked in to what an incredible story Kentucky senior center Josh Harrellson has become. The 6-foot-10 senior center played a grand total of 88 minutes last season, and he scored a total of 28 points. Back in his sophomore season, then-coach Billy Gillispie became so enraged at Harrellson during a game at Vanderbilt that he made Harrellson listen to the coach's halftime locker room talk from a bathroom stall. (Apologized for that yet, Billy Clyde?) Harrellson had some good moments during this season -- most notably his 23-point, 14-rebound effort in a win at Louisville on Dec. 31 -- but he looked like a nondescript role player for most of the season.
In the tournament, however, Harrellson has been Kentucky's most valuable player. Not its most talented, but its most valuable. He has averaged 15 points and nine rebounds per game while evenly battling the likes of Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. Harrellson's dramatic improvement would not have occurred if he didn't have a coach who pushed him and believed in him, but it is mostly a tribute to his pride and work ethic. It also reminds me of the giant steps that Brian Zoubek took at Duke last season, as well as the progress Ryan Hollins made while spurring UCLA to the Final Four in 2006. All three cases involve a senior center who was thought to be a stiff and a bust, yet all of them found a way to lead their teams to success in March.
• I think way too much time is devoted to parsing so-called coaching decisions regarding shot selection at the end of games. I'm thinking specifically of Arizona and Florida, which lost their respective regional finals following questionable three-point shots. Fans and sportswriters dramatically overestimate the degree to which a coach can control those situations. I've often said that Florida junior guard Erving Walker is one of those players who keeps both teams in the game, but the Gators would not have been where they were unless Billy Donovan had given him such a long leash. Ditto for Sean Miller and Derrick Williams. The kid is a 60 percent three-point shooter, and he got a clean look at the goal from the top of the key for a chance to win the game. Jamelle Horne, who attempted the follow-up three, has made 40 percent from behind the arc this season. Would each coach rather have seen his guy drive or pass the ball into the paint in hopes of scoring or getting fouled? Of course. But the coaches are smart enough to put the game in the hands of their best players and trust them to make the right decisions. And we all know if those shots go in, Donovan and Miller would get praised for their daring.
• I must admit that when I first heard Sullinger say he was coming back to Ohio State, my reaction was, "Yeah, right." Lots of players make that kind of statement after an emotional loss in the tournament, only to change their mind a few days later. But in the follow-up reporting to Sullinger's initial declaration, it sounds like the kid really is coming back. That is a pleasant surprise considering he would almost certainly be a top-five NBA draft pick. Sullinger's decision is great news for Ohio State, but it's also great news for college basketball. Having such a talented, high-profile player will give the sport a nice pop heading into next season.
• I also think there has been way too much time and energy devoted to the topic of how good Jimmer Fredette will be as a professional. Why do so many people feel that a player's career can only be validated if he is a huge success at "the next level"? Why can't we just appreciate what great college players do while they are in college? By any measure, Fredette has had an incredible career at BYU, and he has just completed one of the great individual seasons in the history of college basketball. He's not the greatest player ever, and I don't think he'll be a great player in the NBA. (Though I think he'll play in the league for many years.) But too many people have looked at Fredette and focused on all the things he's not. The bottom line is he got a lot of people talking about college basketball this season, and for that we should all be grateful.
• One player who quietly turned in a disappointing performance this tournament is San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard. The 6-7 sophomore forward is a great rebounder as well as a skilled dribbler and passer, but his best asset has always been his motor. So it was a surprise to see him play three NCAA tournament games with so little passion. Leonard's numbers in the tournament were okay (he averaged 16 points and nine rebounds), but he came up short in the leadership department. He should think seriously about returning to school to improve his skills and maturity.
• A few months after UConn lost to Michigan State in the Final Four two years ago, Jim Calhoun mentioned to me at his charity golf tournament that if the Huskies had won the NCAA championship he was going to retire. I didn't really believe him -- it's easy to say something like that when you weren't presented with that scenario -- but I would not be surprised to see Calhoun retire if the Huskies win two games in Houston. You couldn't script a better way to go out, and it would save Calhoun the embarrassment of having to serve a three-game NCAA-mandated suspension. Then again, Calhoun might be stubborn enough to coach another year just to prove that the NCAA couldn't chase him off the sidelines. Any way you cut it, Calhoun has done arguably his finest coaching job with this team. It also looks like he has enjoyed this season more than any other.
• People are often judged by how they handle adversity, but I've been extremely impressed with the way Butler coach Brad Stevens has handled success. After the Bulldogs won that crazy game against Pitt, Stevens' first comment in the postgame interview was to express how badly he felt for the Panthers. After Butler clinched a Final Four berth on Saturday, the first thing Stevens did was shake Billy Donovan's hand, tell Donovan that he had outcoached him and then shake hands with all of the Florida players. He did all of that before celebrating with his guys. Stevens is mature, intelligent and classy, but he also proved this month that he is really, really tough. The big boys will inevitably come calling -- specifically Purdue if Matt Painter takes the Missouri job -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Stevens stays at Butler for the balance of his career.
• Speaking of the coaching carousel, I have to say I am increasingly distressed by how quickly coaches are getting fired these days. Jeff Capel was only two years removed from taking Oklahoma to the Elite Eight, yet he was given the axe following a 14-18 season. Keno Davis was fired after spending just three years at Providence. Jim Boylen just finished his fourth season at Utah, but he was fired by athletic director Chris Hill, who had given Boylen's predecessor, Ray Giacoletti, a pink slip after just three seasons. (Why does Hill get to fire two guys in seven years while still being able to keep his own job?) John Pelphrey had just four years at Arkansas, and he was let go even though he had his best recruiting class coming in. Short of NCAA violations or some other non-basketball malfeasance, a coach should get a minimum of five years to be properly evaluated. It takes that long to build something real. This is why you'll never hear me bemoan a lack of loyalty when a coach leaves a school for a better job. There is no loyalty in this business. Any coach who doesn't grab a good opportunity when it presents itself is being naive or just plain foolish.
• As for the two biggest hires so far, I think Tennessee and Georgia Tech did well with Cuonzo Martin and Brian Gregory, respectively, but it sounds like the fan bases are a little disappointed they didn't get splashier hires. Fans need to understand just how difficult it is to convince a coach to leave a good, secure, high-paying job. I laugh when I see these initial short lists that include names like Rick Barnes, Jamie Dixon and Jay Wright. It sounds like a lot of well-known coaches, and several not-so-well-known coaches, have brushed aside N.C. State's advances, and I still think that is one of the better gigs in the country. I also realize Shaka Smart is a hot name right now, but athletic directors can overreact to a single run in the NCAA tournament in hopes of winning the press conference. The smart ADs find coaches who are on their way up and will commit to building a program for the long-term. Martin and Gregory have walked into challenging situations (Martin especially), but if their fans and administrations give them the necessary time and support, I am confident that both will succeed.