UNC's Cunningham favors expanding NCAA tourney field

ctudor@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2012 

New UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham is among those in favor of a 128-team NCAA Tournament for basketball.

During a recent interview, Cunningham said he has “generally been a proponent” of a 128-team field for several years.

“I think the first 64 games should be played at on-campus sites, but I think it could come about eventually,” Cunningham said.

“When you have 348 teams trying to get what is now 68 places in the tournament, the odds are pretty long for a lot of teams. There are teams that don’t have a great deal of hope.”

Roughly 19.5 percent of the Division I teams wind up with NCAA bids.

By comparison, 16 of 30 teams in the NHL and NBA qualify for the playoffs. That’s 53 percent. In Major League Baseball, eight of 30 teams (26 percent) reach. In the NFL, 12 of 32 teams (37.5 percent) qualify. And in college football, more teams wind up playing in bowl games than don’t.

So if you go by the comparative landscape, the 128 idea is more in line with the equity standards. If 128 teams started the tournament, the participating percentage would increase from 19.5 to roughly 37 percent. But each year, more and more teams make the jump from NCAA Division II to Division I.

Among the first coaches to suggest a 128 field was UCLA’s John Wooden in the 1960s. Wooden’s basketball roots were in Indiana, which had an open postseason prep tournament that included each high school in the state in a completely open event.

Until 1985, when the field was expanded from 48 to 64 teams, an NCAA bid was ridiculously difficult to land mathematically.

From 1953 through 1974, the field was limited to 22 qualifiers at a time when about 225 teams were eligible. That’s 9.7 percent.

During most of those years, MLB had 16 teams and only the National and American League champs played on after the final regular season games. That still comes out 12.5 percent.

The popular theory is that an expansion to 128 teams would wipe out postseason conference tournaments. Cunningham doesn’t entirely agree.

“There are lot of models that would have to be considered,” he said.

One possibility would be to eliminate one of two regular-season games from the early schedule, then start and conference regular-season schedules earlier.

Coaches generally have favored a 128 field for years. A survey by the NCAA in 2005 showed that roughly 65 percent of coaches backed the idea.

So far, however, there’s not been significant support for the 128 format by college presidents and _ more importantly _ the television networks.

But if the networks suddenly decided that it would be good business, odds are the 128 field would come about much faster than it took to go from 32 teams in 1978 to 64 teams in 1985.

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