UNC's Cunningham: More is merrier

Staff WriterFebruary 28, 2012 

New North Carolina 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," he 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 postseason. In the NFL, 12 of 32 teams (37.5 percent) qualify. And in college football, more teams seem to wind up playing in bowls than don't.

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 field of 128 was UCLA's John Wooden during the 1960s. Wooden's basketball roots were in Indiana, which had an open postseason high school tournament that included each 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 to 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 or two regular-season games from the early schedule, then start conference regular-season schedules earlier.

Coaches generally have favored a 128-team 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 it would be good business, odds are the 128-team field would come about much faster than it took to go from 32 teams in 1978 to 64 in 1985.

Tudor: 919-829-8946; ctudor@newsobserver.com

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