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Bridges: Smaller tournament field makes sense to us purists

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There are times when you know the minute you proclaim something it’s going to cause an upheaval with many folks.

In this case, it ignited a debate in a restaurant that l’ve dined in for over three decades, often with the same cohorts who objected profusely to the suggestion I proposed.

All I said was the men’s NCAA basketball tournament allows entirely too many teams to participate and you would’ve thought I had taken their first born and then asked them to pick up the lunch tab to boot.
How could I make such a sacrilegious statement, you ask? It’s really simple, as there just aren’t 68 good college basketball teams in America today, and the product is beyond diluted.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – APRIL 05: (L-R) Mark Vital #11, Davion Mitchell #45. Jackson Moffatt #13 and Flo Thamba #0 of the Baylor Bears celebrate after their win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 05, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

I understand the weird right of passage that many delusional college hoops fans claim each year as they fill out their beloved brackets, one at work and then another online where the promise of a million dollars awaits them if every selection they make comes to pass.

Then there’s the contingent that actually believes their alma mater can conquer the field despite a dismal regular season and sneaking into the bloated field by virtue of a couple of late wins against better teams, thereby fully canceling out the futility they displayed all year up until now.

Since my lunch colleagues are quite crazy about Indiana University basketball, I offered up a history lesson for them in the form of their sacred former coach Robert Montgomery Knight, who actually once looked into a television camera and said, “The tournament field should be limited to 16 teams, 32 at the absolute most.”

The look of desperation on their faces after I quoted their hero was beyond belief, and they immediately claimed Knight never said such a thing, as they quickly changed the subject to Purdue’s alleged collapse in the recent Big Ten Tournament.

The reality is Knight couldn’t have been more correct then and now, as the highly strategic manufactured hype known as March Madness is a multibillion-dollar business and will never revert to a smaller field comprised of worthy participants as long as there’s commitments from Fortune 200 companies such as AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola to throw mega dollars at this corporate event disguised as a basketball tournament. And just for good measure and in the sacred name of institutional control, the sideshow known as the NCAA keeps the lion’s share of the enormous television money from this beloved debacle, but only after giving the Final Four participants their split, which is usually a commemorative backpack and a sweatsuit.

Call me a curmudgeon or anything else you can think of and yes, my agreeing with a bullying tyrant like Knight just may be the sign of the apocalypse, but there can be no logical argument against reducing the field to those who have truly distinguished themselves in the regular season against power conference level competition.

Let the NIT reap the benefit of average, but not great teams falling into their lap, thereby giving those suddenly and rightfully on the outside looking in somewhere to put a bow on their rather average regular season.

While we’re at it, save all the David versus Goliath rhetoric that accompanies that No. 1 seed against a No. 16 seed nonsense, as the game doesn’t need the drama. Just put the best 16 teams in the darn thing and have at it. You can still have your precious bracket as you enjoy a better brand of hoops. You just might enjoy a more elite form of competition, and it won’t take nearly an entire month to conclude.

Play the championship game in a basketball arena and not a football stadium and restore some luster to a once proud event. Bigger isn’t always better, and while it’s highly unlikely it’ll ever return to a reasonable number of participants, I’ll keep waving the smaller format flag as long as I’m strong enough to lift it.

Anyone out there care to join me? I didn’t think so …

Danny Bridges, who could fix what ails the tournament in about an hour, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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