UW Health Sports Medicine 

The Voice with Matt Lepay

With speculation growing that the NCAA tournament will expand to 96 teams next year, allow me to submit that the world as we know it will not end, you will find a way to put together a manageable bracket, and winning a conference championship can still be pretty cool.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for the_voice.jpgHistory shows that when the tournament expands, something special often happens. In 1979, the field grew from 32 to 40 teams. That season produced an NCAA title game that proved to be the springboard for the tournament's popularity. That was the year Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser, beat Indiana State and a star player named Larry Bird. It remains the highest rated college basketball game in television history.

By 1983, the powers that be decided the field needed to expand from 48 to 52, with the additional four teams making the field via opening round or "play-in" games. That year, North Carolina State pulled off a shocking upset of Houston, when the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles dunked at the buzzer to stun the Cougars of "Phi Slamma Jamma" fame.
Just two years later, the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams. Remember the 1985 title game? Villanova fans sure do, as the eighth-seeded Wildcats became the lowest seeded team to win it all when 'Nova knocked off Patrick Ewing and Georgetown 66-64.

I am aware of what the anti-expansion crowd is saying. A 96-team field waters down the tournament. It makes the regular season meaningless. It is all about the money. Let's take those arguments one at a time:

1) It waters down the tournament? I did find it interesting to read that Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody is against expansion. You would think if anyone would want more teams in the field, it would be the coach of a school that has never tasted March Madness. I respect his opinion, but keep in mind that even with a larger field; only 27 percent of Division One schools would qualify for the tournament. That is still a fairly low number, right?

2) It makes the regular season meaningless? A good portion of ESPN's winter programming is college basketball. It certainly is the calling card for the Big Ten Network. Do you really believe that will change?

Let me take it a step in the other direction. Right now, do national sports radio shows spend a ton of time on college basketball? The answer is no, at least not until after the Super Bowl. So what is the difference if the field is 65 or 96? Hard core college basketball fans tend to live in or near, oddly enough, college towns, especially if the local team is good, right Badger fans? If the NCAA tournament becomes a 96-team event, will you stop watching a Wisconsin-Michigan State game, especially if the Big Ten Championship is at stake?

3) It is all about the money? Duh! Of course money matters. Assuming everything is legal and meets basic ethical standards, who turns down the chance to make a little more jack? Isn't any organization trying to grow?

The one concern I would express is potential time away from school. The current 65-team format causes enough challenges. Expanding to 96 could mean a few more days away from campus. I can tell you the University of Wisconsin has been terrific in having the dedicated folks from academic services travel with the team during the season, including post season play. Their efforts could become even more valuable.

Look, the current format is good. We have seen teams such as Butler, George Mason and others from the so-called "non power conferences" make huge NCAA tournament runs.  Maybe there are even more stories out there. Yes, opening the field could allow a slightly above-average team from a "power conference" to slip into the tournament, get hot at the right time and make a run, but is that so bad?  

My only suggestion in all of this would be to take a serious look at conference tournaments. They can be fun for the basketball junkie, but would they really be necessary for the higher profile conferences?

Yeah I know. The money. Never mind.