Trietley: VCU’s success proves it’s time to expand tournament

By Greg Trietley

Remember when VCU shouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament?

“These are horrible… Remember when VCU shouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament?

“These are horrible decisions,” analyst Jay Bilas said on ESPN’s Selection Sunday show after the bracket was announced.

“When I look at UAB and VCU at the expense of some of these other teams … these were bad decisions. They’re indefensible.”

Less than two weeks later, VCU upset No. 1 seed Kansas to make it all the way to the Final Four. The Rams beat five schools from five different conferences in a matter of 12 days.

But Bilas is still right.

VCU didn’t have a resume worthy of the tournament. The Rams finished 12-6 in the Colonial League and lost to Georgia State and Northeastern. Noteworthy wins stop after No. 25 George Mason and UCLA.

They went into their conference tournament thinking they had to win it to get to March Madness. They lost in the finals. As a result, the team watched Cartoon Network and went out for burgers instead of tuning into Selection Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

But this column isn’t about VCU’s lackluster resume or Bilas’ hollering. At the end of the day, the Rams — that podunk team that needed overtime to beat Delaware last month — knocked off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, all in a row.

And that, unfortunately, means the NCAA Tournament should expand.

No one likes change. People applauded the First Four idea because it added three teams to the tournament without altering much of anything. The bracket stayed in its iconic form.

But if a fringe team can make it to the Final Four, then what does that say about the other teams left out? As improbable as it might be, Colorado, Virginia Tech and a dozen other NIT-bound teams had the capacity to do what VCU did. It sounds crass, but there’s nothing special about the Rams. They just got hot.

That’s not to downplay the run, though. To put together five consecutive games like VCU has is miraculous. But during a season in which Illinois-Chicago beat Illinois, Charlotte beat Tennessee and Drexel beat Louisville — not to mention the upsets of No. 1 teams — you can’t tell me 96 teams in the NCAA Tournament would water down the competition.

It actually would improve the early-round games. With 24 teams to a region, the top eight seeds receive a bye, and the bottom 16 seeds play each other for a spot in the second round. Voila!

The tournament grows to a full slate of competitive first-round games — no more First Four round — and top seeds face stronger opponents early. What’s better: Florida vs. UC-Santa Barbara or Florida vs. Harvard? With weak teams weeded out, a No. 1 seed could drop its first game.

If you give a few additional automatic bids to regular-season champions of mid-major conferences, the plan works for everyone except the top seeds, which would love to coast into the Final Four like it’s 2008. But if you want firm championship-game ground for the best teams, you’re a football away from arguing for the BCS.

No matter how many teams you invite, there’s always going to be one or two more that cry foul and say they should have made it too. Still, this is the third time in six years a Final Four team has hit us like the ending of “The Sixth Sense.”

George Mason accomplished the feat in 2006. Analyst Billy Packer played Bilas’ role that Selection Sunday when he criticized the Patriots’ inclusion as an at-large bid. Butler was the sensation last year, and VCU is now.

It’s OK to admit you picked Georgetown to advance when its opponent was USC/VCU. But at some point we’re going to have to stop calling teams like VCU “Cinderellas” and start realizing that the playing field for college basketball has never been more even.

Butler beat Murray State 54-52 in a second-round nail biter last March and edged out single-digit wins all the way to the championship game. No. 10 seed Florida State played VCU the best of anyone, losing in overtime last week.

The gap between No. 1 and No. 96 is so small that it doesn’t make sense to fight expansion, as bad as it might sound at first. If VCU can launch 3-pointers for a couple weekends in March, so can St. Mary’s, Boston College and Alabama.

Invite more teams. The tournament is a series of heart-pounding, unpredictable coin flips, and I want more of it.