- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2011

Expanding the field to 68 teams was supposed to make this so easy there was no screwing it up. Which, of course, the NCAA selection committee promptly did.

Its single greatest injustice, apparently, was awarding at-large bids to UAB and VCU at the expense of high majors Colorado and Virginia Tech, not to mention several other more-deserving schools.

“My wife knows diddly about basketball,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale howled just minutes after the committee’s handiwork hit the airwaves, “but if you put her here and said, ‘Look at Colorado’s resume, look at UAB, and look at VCU,’ it would be an M&Mer _ a mismatch, man.

“It would be like a beauty contest, Roseanne Barr walking in vs. Scarlett Johansson. No shot,” he paused for effect, “none whatsoever.”

Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director who led the selection committee, did himself no favors trying to explain how the committee arrived at any of its decisions. In a 45-minute teleconference with reporters, Smith, a master of the obvious, provided few specifics and used the word “great” 24 times to describe either teams, their resumes, coaches, conferences, tournament runs and even the NCAA’s new TV partners.

Smith first said he couldn’t remember the last team let into the field, then conveniently remembered a few seconds later the selection committee chose not to reveal it.

“It was more difficult, it really was,” he said, “because there was so many good teams out there.”

Actually, just the opposite is true. The field this year set records for losing: most teams in with 11, 13 and even 14 losses; the five 14-loss teams, in fact, is only one fewer than the total of such teams that made the tournament since the bracket was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

That was little consolation to coach Seth Greenberg, whose Virginia Tech team was similarly hosed last year. Mid-majors got seven of the 37 at-large bids _ roughly the same number they averaged throughout the decade, with three less slots available _ but Greenberg wondered aloud, anyway, whether some people on the committee had an agenda.

“I feel for these kids,” Greenberg said about his team, then added, “You would hate to think that politics would be involved, but it makes you wonder.”

Vitale was even more outraged, saying he’d promised his wife upon leaving church earlier Sunday that he wouldn’t scream or make a scene as he had in years past.

“But you know,” his on-air rant continued, “I can’t take it, man, when I see kids being given a raw deal. And they’re getting a raw deal at Virginia Tech, and a raw deal at Colorado.”

No doubt.

Fortunately, Vitale moved on soon enough and like everybody else, set about the business of filling out a bracket. He knows the NCAA tournament is not about the kids. Not coincidentally, ESPN and HBO both aired shows over the weekend fondly looking back at two out-of-control college programs _ Michigan’s “Fab Five” and the “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV” _ which served as reminders it hasn’t been about the kids for several decades now, if ever.

What’s certain is that the NCAA tournament is less about rah-rah and more about generating revenue than it’s ever been. Before the season began, CBS locked up the postseason extravaganza with a 14-year, $10.8-billion rights deal and brought along partners TBS, TNT and TruTV to share in the broadcasting.

Add streaming video in real time across all platforms and you begin to understand why Turner Sports president David Levy recently told Sports Illustrated, “If you were going to customize and build an event for the web or for the new digital technology, you would construct the NCAA basketball tournament.”

He’s right, too. Bigger is better in this case, and not just on the broadcast end of things. There were objections each time the tournament got bigger, and not just about the teams that were left out. When the field expanded to 64 teams, there were 284 schools playing Division I men’s basketball. There are five dozen more than that today.

Expanding the field hasn’t cheapened the accomplishment, diluted the impact of the regular season or diminished the sport’s appeal one iota. That’s because, unlike college football’s rigged version of a postseason, the crucible of college basketball’s tournament always delivers a worthy champion.

So grouse about the selections if you want, but don’t let it linger past Tuesday, when the games begin. Former Duke player Jay Bilas, probably the game’s smartest analyst anywhere, got off the best salvo of the night about the committee, wondering whether there were some members “who don’t know if the ball is round.”

But not too long after that, Bilas turned his gaze toward the bracket. “The tournament, thank god, is idiot-proof.”

Let’s hope so.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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