There was significant discussion last year about whether the NCAA basketball tournament ought to expand its field to include as many as 96 teams. The obvious motive was money. More games would mean more television time and, therefore, a larger rights fee paid to the NCAA for the privilege of broadcasting those games.
That was the beginning and end of it.
Any talk of expanded opportunity was bunk. The fact is that no fewer teams have the opportunity — right now — to win a national championship with the 68-team field than if the tournament had been expanded to 96.
In reality, the vast majority of Division I teams already are in the national championship tournament every year. It’s just that for many, the early rounds are conducted under the vast umbrella of conference tournaments, such as is the case with this week’s Ohio Valley Conference event at Municipal Auditorium.
Starting now, as long as Austin Peay or Tennessee State or Murray State or any of the others in the eight-team field continue to win, they remain alive in pursuit of the national championship. Win three games at Municipal and keep playing. Win more games after that, and the possibility for a national championship — no matter how remote — remains.
Granted, it’s not exactly the same opportunity afforded to Duke or Texas or Ohio State or Kansas — all schools that effectively have a reservation in the NCAA field regardless of what happens in their respective conference tournaments. It is no different, though, than what awaits the likes of Auburn, LSU or South Carolina — schools that did not accomplish enough during the regular season — at next week’s SEC event.
With that in mind, this week’s games at Municipal will be played with the same passion and desperation that has made the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament can’t-miss television for even casual sports fans.
At the OVC tournament and many others like it over the next two weeks, there will be upsets and there will be last-second heroics. And there will be that national championship carrot dangling out there and driving one team just a little further than the rest.
It is what has — and always will — set college basketball apart from football.
Even if the powers that oversee college football ever come to their senses and create some sort of national championship playoff, there still won’t ever be the same expansive opportunity that exists right now in basketball.
And with the so many one-and-done superstars in a hurry to make their way to the NBA, that opportunity only grows. It’s the smaller programs that hold onto their players for four years and develop the chemistry, trust and experience critical at this time of year.
Five years ago, we saw George Mason make a run to the Final Four. Last year, Butler made it all the way to the title game against the aforementioned Duke, a program that seems to have some sort of divine right to titles in the sport.
It’s just a matter of time before a team with 10 wins, or eight wins, or even five wins gets on a roll at exactly the right time and keeps winning. It’ll send shockwaves through the sport. But the only way that happens is for that team to win its conference tournament first.
There will come a time Saturday night when the players and coaches from one team will lift a trophy and cut down nets. They’ll declare themselves champions, Ohio Valley Conference champions — and rightfully so.
The truth will be that they successfully navigated the first steps of the national championship chase. For the eight schools that qualified, this is the start of the NCAA tournament.