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March Madness: Here comes more NCAA tournament expansion talk to fix what isn't broken

March Madness is damn near perfect. If anything, the 'First Four' should be wiped out.

Over a chaotic conference championship weekend, five teams that weren’t otherwise going to make the NCAA tournament rose up, won their league tournament and secured a bid … or stole one, depending on your viewpoint.

North Carolina State took the ACC’s automatic spot, UAB the American, Duquesne the Atlantic 10, New Mexico the Mountain West and Oregon the Pac-12.

That turned the race for one of the 37 at-large bids into a race for one of the 32 at-large bids. All those lists of “last four in” quickly became "first four (actually five) out.”

To say there was disappointment, anger and disillusion would understate things. It’s a tough way to end a season. It was also an exciting week of basketball mayhem and one, perhaps, everyone should cherish.

And yet at least some of the powers that be are discussing expanding the NCAA men's tournament field from 68 teams to 76 or 80 or who knows how many. And they may just use what just happened — the aforementioned exciting week of basketball mayhem — as fuel for their reasoning.

“Nothing remains static,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN last week.

It wasn’t the first time Sankey has raised the issue of expansion, but his reasoning set off alarm bells.

He pointed to a 2021 run by 11-seed UCLA from the First Four to the Final Four or the 2018 tourney when 11-seed Syracuse made the Sweet 16 as proof that there are bubble teams from power conferences capable of great things but might not get a chance in a 68-team field.

“That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive,” Sankey said. “We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues].”

Oh, boy.

Sankey later spoke to the media and clarified some of his comments, noting he is just one guy offering one opinion in the hopes of spurring one discussion about expansion. All fair. He’s also the most powerful person in college athletics, is extremely intelligent and is known for choosing his words not merely carefully but strategically.

Duquesne 's Kareem Rozier, front right, congratulates head coach Keith Dambrot, left, after an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in the championship of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament Sunday, March 17, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
Duquesne's Kareem Rozier congratulates head coach Keith Dambrot, left, after the Dukes beat Virginia Commonwealth to win the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament and qualify for their first NCAA tournament in 47 years. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When the sentiment expressed is leagues like the SEC are “giving away” slots to smaller league champions, yeah, everyone’s ears should perk up. No one owns this tournament. It’s America’s tournament. Or should be.

March Madness is damn near perfect. If anything, the “First Four” could be wiped out, returning things to the symmetrical 64-team field that operated from 1985-2000. Expansion is unnecessary.

Absolutely no one is going to argue that Northeast Conference champion Wagner (16-15) has a chance to win the national title or had a better résumé than left-out-bubble-teams Oklahoma, Pitt or Seton Hall.

This tournament isn’t just a competitive entity. Part of what makes March magical is the inclusion of teams from all over the place, connecting fans and communities that otherwise wouldn’t be involved and offering a platform for any team to succeed.

Sixteen seed Fairleigh Dickinson beat No. 1 seed Purdue last year, mirroring what 16-seed UMBC did to Virginia in 2018. In 2022, 15-seed Saint Peter's beat the likes of Kentucky and Purdue to reach the Elite Eight.

Cinderella isn’t just a thing, it kind of is the thing.

Yes, the best teams will battle it out at the end, but this event holds the place it does in this country’s social fabric because of the unexpected upsets.

The inclusion is part of the popularity.

And so is the exclusion.

It isn’t easy getting into this thing. It’s why Duquesne earning its first bid in 47 years was a monumental moment unto itself. It’s why there are watch parties across the country. It’s why even a tourney veteran like Tom Izzo cheers when Michigan State’s name pops on the screen.

It’s also why St. John’s knows that, analytics aside, a 2-8 midseason stretch is what doomed its bid. The Red Storm are a compelling team that could likely win some games. But shouldn’t a lengthy losing stretch like that matter?

Starting last week, the vast majority of Division I’s 364 teams had a chance to reach the NCAA tournament. All they had to do was win their conference tournament. Essentially, everyone is already in the tournament; every conference tournament game becomes a play-in round.

It, as always, led to some unexpected results.

Long Beach State fired its coach, Dan Monson, last Monday but let him finish out the season. After winning the Big West, the season still isn’t finished. NC State’s Kevin Keatts may have been on the hot seat last week, but five ACC tournament victories in five games not only got the Pack into the tournament, but triggered a clause in his contract that extended his employment two more seasons.

Anyone can do anything.

In 2006, George Mason reached the Final Four from outside the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC). Eleven others have done it since, including two (Florida Atlantic and San Diego State) just last year.

Sankey pointed to the bloated nature of D-I basketball — those 364 teams — to argue more spots are needed. However, the growth in the sport is at the lowest level. The power teams have the same access. If the field expanded, the extra at-large spots aren’t going to the Northeast Conference; not that anyone is arguing we need more Wagners. We just don’t want to lose them.

This year, the regular season has produced increased parity. The transfer portal, NIL, the G-League, the lessening of shoe company influence on recruiting has appeared to weaken the best teams and closed some competitive gaps.

North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, lost seven times. A 5-seed — Wisconsin — 13. Anyone can beat anyone.

We just saw that this past weekend. Now we get three weeks of sporting perfection to see who is next.

No need to change it. This isn’t broken.

This is going to be beautiful.