Every couple of years, you hear the whispers: They need to expand the NCAA tournament. It needs to be bigger.
These whispers are usually started by coaches, whose job increasingly tends to come down to a referendum on whether or not they made the Big Dance. But that's the sense: 64, or 65, or 68 just isn't enough. Four years ago, the NCAA actually said it planned on going up to 96 before being shouted down. This led, inevitably, to the Onion video NCAA Expands March Madness To Include 4,096 Teams.
Thing is, though: The NCAA tournament already has expanded. It begins tonight.
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According to KenPom, there are 351 teams in Division I basketball. A few of these teams are not eligible for the NCAA tournament. They are:
- Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Florida International, Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State, New Orleans, Southern (failed to meet NCAA APR academic standards; this is why Connecticut had to sit out last year)
- Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, Incarnate Word, UMass Lowell, Nebraska (Omaha), Northern Kentucky (in transition to Division I)
(Surprisingly, there are no teams on probation and banned from postseason play right now.)
Also, the Ivy League, because they have to be so smart about everything, doesn't have a postseason tournament, which means six teams (who have already been eliminated from championship contention) have no shot at the NCAA tournament. (Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Dartmouth and Cornell.) Harvard has a two-game lead on Yale and only needs to win one of its last two games to clinch a spot and eliminate Yale.
Also, the New Jersey Institute of Technology is the only team in Division I that doesn't have a conference to play in. Poor schmucks.
Also, some conferences, for the sake of math, don't allow every team to play in their conference tournaments. If you finish ninth in a league with an eight-team tournament, you're out. So, sorry, Kennesaw State, Austin Peay, Tennessee-Martin, Jacksonville State, Tennessee State, LIU Brooklyn and Sacred Heart. (So far: Those are the only conference tournaments currently locked in. When more conference tourneys get locked in, more teams will be knocked out. It doesn't look good, say, for Southern Utah, for example.)
And that's it. Twenty-six teams are out of it. Every other team in college basketball can win the national championship. Three hundred twenty-three teams, from all across this great land of ours. Any of them could win it all, if they just get hot at the right time.
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It's impossible to put together a 325-team bracket, but what will happen over the next fortnight is essentially the same thing. Monday night, the Patriot League kicks off its tournament with two games: Lafayette at Loyola (Md.) and Navy at Colgate. (You can watch them here if you're feeling frisky.) The losers of those two games will join the 26 teams whose championship dreams are already over. And then we will be off.
Anything can happen. Let's say a player on Colgate -- we'll go with 6-foot-3 freshman guard Andrew Bargmann, who has scored six points in eight games for the Raiders this year -- happens to be bitten by a radioactive wombat in the next six hours. He has an immediate reaction and turns into a superhuman, able to fly over defenders and apparate on a whim to any spot on the court. He scores 300 points every game and Colgate beats everybody 300-4. (I figure Bargmann will accidentally goal-tend a couple of times.) If that happens -- AND IT COULD -- Colgate, a 12-17 team that plays in front of 3,000 fans in Hamilton, N.Y., will win the national championship.
It is fair to say that this is perhaps unlikely to happen. (Bargmann should keep his distance from wombats, just in case.) But the point is that it could. Starting tonight, 323 teams will put together a dead sprint for the national championship. Anyone could do it.
There is nothing else in sport like this. The Buffalo Sabres? The Philadelphia 76ers? They're toast. If they suddenly wake up and win every game the rest of the year, their season is still over. There is no coming back from where they are. This might be design, this might be nature, but no matter what, they cannot yank themselves back from the cliff they've jumped off. It's over for them.
In college basketball, there is always another chance. Whether you are Maryland-Eastern Shore -- who is currently 5-22, ranked 346th by KenPom and destined for a No. 13 seed in the MEAC -- or Kentucky, if your team hasn't found itself yet, there is still time. There is an escape hatch. No matter how bad things have gotten, there is a path for you to turn it all around. In the end, someone has to beat you. Whoever you are.
You might think this devalues the regular season, turning everything into a one-and-done. I say it enobles it. It turns the journey of the season into the actual point of the season: No matter how bad it got in January, you can pull it all together in March and salvage everything. There is always hope for a happy ending. It's never a lost cause. There's always a chance.
So, go Colgate, and Navy, and Loyola, and Lafayette, and Maryland-Eastern Shore and wombats. You've gotta have hope. For a team to win a championship, the college basketball world must go through you first. Your destiny, all of our destiny, is in our own hands. It's March. This is the fun part.
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