Lure of more money means NCAA will expand March Madness

Published 2:30 pm Saturday, March 23, 2024

You might not have seen the recent headlines, but there is talk of changing the greatest sporting event in America.

The hacks that run the NCAA have been sending signals for a couple years now that they want to expand the annual postseason basketball tournament that we know and love as March Madness.

There are rumors of an 80-team bracket or a monstrous 96-team bracket.

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The current 68-team model came about in 2011, when the NCAA added four games in Dayton, Ohio that it dubbed the “First Four.”

From 1985 until 2000, the field was locked in at 64-teams, a format that felt perfect in its design. The NCAA added one extra game in 2001 to make it a 65-team event and then bumped that to 68-teams a decade later.

The idea of tournament expansion has been decried by commentators, coaches, and fans alike, but the NCAA doesn’t care what you think. The NCAA cares about making money and expanding the tournament is a way for it to make more money through media rights.

The powerful conferences that drive college athletics through football, specifically the SEC and BIG 10, inch closer and closer to absconding from the NCAA to one day govern themselves. Remember, the NCAA doesn’t control college football money, those deals are between the conferences and their media partners.

March Madness has been the cash cow for the NCAA and expanding it feels like some type of ill-thought-out ploy for the governing body to stay relevant in a time where it’s increasing becoming irrelevant.

College football recruiting has become the wild west, with NIL collectives shelling millions and millions of dollars to stock the rosters of the best teams in the country.

The haves and the have-nots are seeing an already deep divide grow by the day and the NCAA is shrinking in its authority and reach.

So, to keep our attention, the suits in Indianapolis are like, “hey, you guys like basketball right, how about we have a tournament where a third of the teams in the country will make the postseason tournament.” All while lining their pockets with more cash from television networks and advertisers.

No, man, just no. Leave March Madness alone.

The idea of a watered down, expanded NCAA basketball tournament makes me ill. Not as ill as the idea that one day Hollywood is going to remake “The Goonies,” but close.

When I first got out of college, I could not find a teaching or coaching job. I cleaned up debris after Hurricane Katrina with my Dad in Brookhaven, McComb and Waveland. I also worked as a substitute teacher at some area schools and eventually was hired for about 12 weeks to sub at Loyd Star.

The late Lana West Adams was the teacher I was filling in for and she gave me a thick binder with handouts and lesson plans. She told me that should get me through until her return.

After two weeks, I had given the high schoolers I was teaching every handout I had available.

There was a television in the room, one of those monsters on a rolling cart with a VCR. The kind your teacher used to show you “Romeo and Juliet” after the class finished reading the play.

There was also a coax cable hanging from the ceiling in the back part of the classroom. One day I hooked the cable to the television and realized I had access to local television stations.

Please, don’t think I was a teacher at that time, I was nothing more than a young, dumb babysitter that was getting paid $50 a day to make sure that no did anything too stupid on my watch.

Today, I am a much better teacher and person than I was back then.

I don’t remember how the idea came up about watching March Madness on our classroom television, but I do remember asking the kids if they’d be ok with that.

Nearly every boy in every class roared with approval. Those boys are all men now, with families and responsibilities and from time to time, some of them will see me around town and smile when they say, “I’ll never forget that time we watched the NCAA basketball tournament in class at Loyd Star.”

I’ll never forget it either, as my love of March Madness began as a teenager too.

My tournament fandom was stoked in 1995 when Tyus Edney went the length of the court in 4.8 seconds to give UCLA a buzzer beating win over Missouri in the second round.

I had paid attention to the Final Four in previous years and had seen Duke and UNLV and North Carolina and Michigan and Arkansas all have their time in the spotlight, but UCLA was a team that had me locked in as a 13-year-old.

Edney, Cameron Dollar, Toby Bailey, Charles O’Bannon and Ed O’Bannon were the stars for the Bruins– they went 32-1and beat Arkansas 89-78 in the title game and I’ve been hooked on watching the tournament from start to finish ever since.

UCLA beat Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 that year, but the Bruins would be bounced in the first round of the tournament the following year by a bunch of nerds from Princeton.

That 1996 edition of March Madness had the whole Magnolia State in a chokehold as we watched Mississippi State and Lawrence County’s own Erick Dampier make a run to the Final Four.

For two weeks the entire state beamed with pride at the dunks of Dontae’ Jones, the leadership of Darryl Wilson, the toughness of Marcus Bullard and the perfectly set screens of Russell Walters as MSU was on the national stage in a way that it had never been before.

It felt magical.

As much as we love to consume media that features magic, we don’t live in a world that contains the type that Harry Potter practices at Hogwarts, but often the magic in our reality comes via sports.

For us, the magic comes when no. 16 seed Farleigh Dickerson beats no. 1 seeded Purdue or when the no. 11 seeded George Mason Patriots make a run to the Final Four or when you get to see a team from Davidson, led by a baby-faced Stephen Curry make the Elite Eight.

The St. Peter’s Peacocks, the Loyola Ramblers, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, the VCU Rams, the UMBC Retrievers – you hear the names of those former March Madness Cinderellas, and you can instantly recall the magic they created.

It continued Thursday on the first day of the play for the 2024 tournament when Oakland University captivated the attention of the nation with a win over college basketball blue blood Kentucky. Oakland guard Jack Gohlke, who looks like he was born to sell life insurance policies, hit 10 3-pointers and scored a season high 32 points in an 80-76 win for the Golden Grizzlies.

Why would anyone try and tweak something that’s nearly perfect in the way that it captures the collective attention of sports fans for three weeks every spring?

Magic isn’t real, but money is and that’s why we’ll one day see March Madness expand to nearly 100 teams in the not-too-distant future.

Fine, whatever, I’ll probably watch even if it’s a 120-team bracket, but I’m seriously ready to riot if anyone ever messes with “The Goonies.”

Cliff Furr is the sports editor at The Daily Leader. He can be reached via email at