The NCAA tournament is what makes college basketball great.
For diehards like me, there’s so much more to it: the student sections, the underdogs, the glory that comes with pulling off a major upset, the euphoria of a cinderella conference tournament champion, a band that rocks.
But if it weren’t for the NCAA tournament, if it wasn’t for the entire month that college hoops dominates the attention of our nation’s sports fans, college basketball would be even more of a niche sport.
And the beauty of the NCAA tournament lies in the underdogs. It lies in the stories that emerge when a team like Florida-Gulf Coast makes a run to the Sweet 16 or when teams like VCU, Butler and George Mason make a run to the Final Four. It lies in the hope that Gonzaga can one day break through and make a Final Four or the possibility of another Stephen Curry coming along and forcing his way into the Elite 8. It lies in the seconds that a No. 13 seed’s potential game-winner spends floating through the air.
That’s why the next step in conference realignment is so scary.
When Pete Thamel of SI.com originally wrote his story on the possibility of the Power 5 conferences — Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC — forming their own division in college athletics, he made it clear that, as of now, the NCAA tournament is safe.
But ‘as of now’ doesn’t mean ‘forever’, because if those schools realize that they can make more money for themselves by forming their own division and keeping low- and mid-major programs from the Big Dance, than they will. And, as former NCAA executive vice president Greg Shaheen told Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com, that’s very much a possibility.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about college sports in the last few years, it’s that teams are always going to chase more money. From Parrish:
money is the one thing the power conferences value over all other things. For proof, consider that every significant change in college athletics over the past two decades has been rooted in an ability to make more money. It’s why the BCS was scrapped in favor of a four-team playoff the powerbrokers insisted would never happen. They didn’t change their position because they finally realized it’s absurd to let a computer award championships. They changed their position because they finally realized they can make more money with a four-team playoff than they could with the BCS, and it’s why you would be wise to roll your eyes when these same power brokers now insist they’ll never move to an eight-team playoff.
Because an eight-team playoff is worth more money than a four-team playoff.
So that’s coming, too.
That’s not the only concern for the non-power conference programs, either. Let’s say that the five conferences listed above form their own NCAA division, but instead of breaking away they simply follow their own rules.
Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News asks the question: what about the proposed stipend?
You know, the $2,000 full cost-of-attendance stipend that the smaller NCAA members shot down but that the richer programs supported.
Would that mean that programs like Big East members Villanova and Georgetown and American members Cincinnati and UConn would be facing a disadvantage? When picking between, say, Memphis and Florida, would the extra $2,000 that an athlete could get from the Gators play a role in an elite recruit’s decision?
There’s a difference between the haves and the have-nots in college sports, but in college hoops, that line gets blurred.
And if you listen to two of the strongest voices that cover the sport, there’s reason to be concerned that our little game could end up changing for the worse — again — in the future.