The NCAA tournament gets down to the Sweet Sixteen Sunday, a more manageable size and about the number of teams that had a realistic chance to win the thing when college basketball’s March madness began with 64 schools last Thursday.
Thirty conference champions running the spectrum of college athletics from heavyweights like the Atlantic Coast, Big East and Big Ten, to half pints like the Association of Mid-Continent Universities, the Trans America Athletic and the Mid-Eastern Athletic, get automatic invitations to this show.
That sometimes creates lopsided pairings, especially in the first round.
As Ivy League champion Princeton prepared for its tournament opener with No. 2 Georgetown, Coach Pete Carril considered the challenge and termed the matchup an example of his Titanic Theory.
“I mean,” he said, “in that whole big ocean, it was just the luck of the draw that the ship and the ice found each other.”
Princeton had plenty of company in the David division of this tournament of Goliaths. Other automatic qualifiers included first-timers like McNeese State, George Mason, Siena and South Carolina State. Also headed for the big dance, for at least one waltz, were Southwest Missouri State, South Alabama, and Southern, as well as Middle Tennessee State, East Tennessee State, which came within a point of upsetting Oklahoma Thursday, Bucknell and Robert Morris, which is a school, not a player.
The question then is whether the 64-team NCAA tournament ocean has too many rowboats sailing around, appealing little targets for those great big icebergs.
“I’ve never liked 64 at all,” said John Wooden, who won 10 championships in 12 years with UCLA. “Those little schools have a very small chance of winning even one game. They’ve got a team (McNeese State) with 13 losses in there. In the past, they’ve had teams that lost more than that. My 10 (championship) teams lost 10 games, total.
“I don’t like letting five and six teams from a conference in. You play all season to see who the best team is. That ought to mean something. Then they bring in fifth and sixth place teams. If you let 64 in, you ought to let them all in.”
Wooden means it. He has proposed a tournament that would include all Division I teams who are not on probation. It is a share-the-wealth plan that would parcel proceeds of this rich event to all eligible schools, instead of just the lucky 64.
“You cut the season back one week to get the time,” he said. “In one weekend, you’d be down to 64. All the money generated would be divided into shares so that every school got one share for each game it plays.”
Based on the money distributed in last year’s tournament, Wooden said his formula would give half of the competing schools--those eliminated after one game--$51,000.
“If they played two games, they’d get twice that. (Defending champion) Kansas would have gotten $300,000, Oklahoma $250,000 and the other semifinalists $200,000 each.”
The existing plan pays all Final Four teams more than $1.25 million.
“Some of the small schools could use that $51,000 better than the big ones use that million,” Wooden said.
An invitation to the tournament is an automatic $250,000 payoff for first round losers. So the smaller schools are more than happy to join the party, even if it means an almost-certain early exit. And every now and then, one of longshots springs a surprise.
Indiana’s 1987 national championship was sandwiched around first round wipeouts by lightly-regarded Cleveland State three years ago and Richmond last year. The same year that Cleveland State took out Indiana, 14th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock kayoed No. 3 seed Notre Dame.
Upsets like that are why some observers like ex-coach and current broadcaster Dick Vitale endorse the 64-team field.
“It’s not too many,” Vitale said. “It’s a good number. It means you’ve got to win six games. There are no byes.
“In essence, it’s open to everyone. You have one shot to play and get in. An idealist might argue that it should be restricted to league champions. But this is the real world and 64 is here to stay.”
Vitale said the crowded field used to bother him but that he has changed his view of it.
“I think 64 makes the end of the year more meaningful,” he said. “Will you get the quarter million? It creates excitement. It lets the Mississippi Valley States challenge the Dukes. It gives the little guys hope, a dream. “
That dream was exactly what lightweight Lehigh rode into the tournament in 1985. Coach Tom Schneider’s team was 12-18 during the regular season but won the East Coast tournament and an automatic berth--against Georgetown, the defending national champions.
The result was predictable: Georgetown 68, Lehigh 43.
Schneider wasn’t complaining, though. “It was the first time in the school’s history that it got into the tournament and it was a great experience for the kids,” he said. “That’s what college athletics is all about. It gives kids the opportunity to achieve the most they can, to be student-athletes.”