Why the NCAA tournament's expansion to 68 teams has not worked out

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Kansas Big 12 title life-support systems sold separately):

[More Minutes: 7 key NCAA tournament bracket questions]

THE NOT-SO-GREAT 68

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Given the threadbare state of the NCAA tournament bubble, a few members of the punditry class have opined that the tourney should be contracted back to its perfect number, 64 teams. This stance was met by the following Twitter response from David Worlock of the NCAA, who does an excellent job running the tournament: “For all with the hot take that the tournament should be 64 teams, it's probably a good time to remind you that a First Four team has advanced to the round of 32 or further in all 8 tournaments with this format. Also, less than 20 percent of DI teams make the tournament.”

All well and good. But the creation of the First Four (21) hasn't improved the tournament. There was a miracle run by VCU (22) to the Final Four the first year, in 2011, which allowed the NCAA to defend this scam on two fronts, saying that First Four teams are quality teams and that this wasn't just a vehicle to give more bids to power conferences. But since that Rams run, it has played out as everyone suspected: no runs past the Sweet 16 for any First Four teams, and the additional bids have indeed skewed more to the teams from the top six leagues.

Of the 32 additional at-large bids, 18 (56.3 percent) have gone to teams from Power Six conferences. Over the same eight years, overall bids have been awarded to Power Six teams at a rate of 51.1 percent. That number is increasing the past two seasons — 55.9 percent of bids in 2017 went to teams from the big six, and 54.1 percent last year.

The rationalization for that increased percentage has been the upward mobility of some basketball-first schools into the Power Six, most notably programs like Xavier, Butler and Creighton. While that's true, the overall percentage of Division I teams in the Power Six has stayed pretty steady over eight years, between 20.8 percent and 21.5.

Which means that more than half the bids are going to one-fifth of the members. And the First Four is right in line with that, if not a tick more deferential to teams from the muddled middle of big-time leagues.

It is fitting, as we head into a stretch run that includes the likes of Indiana (6-12 in the Big Ten), TCU (6-11 in the Big 12) and Florida (12 losses and counting) in the bubble conversation, that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany (23) on Monday announced his retirement in June 2020. Delany and Mike Slive, the late Southeastern Conference commissioner, did as much as anyone to consolidate power in the hands of the richest leagues, and never stopped seeking more cash and more influence.

That's a First Four mentality.

The "March Madness" logo adorns a ball resting on the court during practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The "March Madness" logo adorns a ball resting on the court during practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

THE LITTLE DANCE, PART I

Tournament basketball began Monday night, the gradual process of whittling the field of dreamers down from more than 300 to 68 on Selection Sunday, and then on to one champion on the night of April 8. For The Minutes' money, the conference tourneys are where some of the best action is, especially the mid-majors and low majors who are battling without a safety net just to see their names in the bracket come March 17.

Here's a brief rundown — with picks — of the first 14 tournaments:

OHIO VALLEY

League Pomeroy ranking: 25th out of 32.

Defending champion: Murray State.

Regular-season champion: Belmont and Murray tied, with Belmont getting the top seed via a head-to-head win over the Racers.

Best player: Murray State guard Ja Morant.

Sleeper: Jacksonville State, which won this tourney two years ago and swept Belmont in the regular season.

Multi-bid potential: If Belmont and Murray both make the final, the loser should at least get some consideration in the room. The Bruins have the stronger résumé.

Minutes pick: Belmont (24).

OVC Patron Saint of March: Fly Williams. The Austin Peay guard from Brooklyn (yes, that Brooklyn) scored 26 points in a first-round win over Jacksonville in 1973, then another 26 in the next round as the Governors took Kentucky into overtime before falling.

BIG SOUTH

League Pomeroy ranking: 19th out of 32.

Defending champion: Radford.

Regular-season champion: Radford and Campbell tied, with Campbell getting the top seed.

Best player: Campbell guard Chris Clemons.

Sleeper: Hampton. Closed on a four-game winning streak and has beaten both Radford and Campbell this season.

Multi-bid potential: No.

Minutes pick: Campbell (25).

Big South Patron Saint of March: Craig Bradshaw of Winthrop scored 24 points when the Eagles upset Notre Dame in 2007 for the first and only Big South NCAA tournament victory beyond the Dayton play-in round.

Ali Farokmanesh, Bo Kimble, Rob Gray
Ali Farokmanesh, Bo Kimble, Rob Gray

ATLANTIC SUN

League Pomeroy ranking: 20th out of 32.

Defending champion: Lipscomb.

Regular-season champion: Lipscomb and Liberty tied for the title, with Lipscomb getting the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed.

Best player: Lipscomb guard Garrison Mathews.

Sleeper: North Florida. Closed on a six-game winning streak, including a win over Liberty.

Multi-bid potential: If Lipscomb make the title game but loses, the Bisons should get consideration based on a win at TCU, a victory over Vermont and close losses to Louisville and Belmont.

Minutes pick: Lipscomb (26).

A-Sun Patron Saint of March: Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast. He was the lob pass set-up man for the great Dunk City run of 2013, when FGCU shocked Georgetown and San Diego State to make the first and only 15-seed run to the Sweet 16. Comer had 26 points and 31 assists in three games, earning his spot in tournament lore.

MISSOURI VALLEY

League Pomeroy ranking: 17th out of 32.

Defending champion: Loyola Chicago.

Regular-season champion: Loyola and Drake tied for the title, with Loyola getting the No. 1 seed.

Best player: Loyola center Cameron Krutwig.

Sleeper: Southern Illinois won its last three and seven of its last 10, with the three losses in that stretch by a total of 12 points.

Multi-bid potential: None.

Minutes pick: Southern Illinois (27).

MVC Patron Saint of March: The Loyola run last year was cool, but a guy named Oscar Robertson once played in the Valley — yet he's still not the patron saint, because Cincinnati's two national titles came after Big O had moved on to the NBA. So give the title to Cincinnati center Paul Hogue, who averaged 21.3 points and 14.8 rebounds in four Final Four games in 1961 and '62.

SOUTHERN

League Pomeroy ranking: 12th out of 32.

Defending champion: UNC-Greensboro.

Regular-season champion: Wofford.

Best player: Wofford guard Fletcher Magee.

Sleeper: Greensboro is on the other side of the bracket from Wofford and has plenty of players who know how to win this tourney after last year's title run.

Multi-bid potential: Plenty. Wofford is an at-large lock if the Terriers don't win the tourney, and there are three other teams with résumés that should at least be considered: Furman, UNC-Greensboro and East Tennessee State.

Minutes pick: Wofford (28).

SoCon Patron Saint of March: Does the name Stephen Curry ring a bell? When Davidson was in the league, he carried the Wildcats to the 2008 Elite Eight, and within a shot of the Final Four.

Stephen Curry talks with ESPN's Dick Vitale after a Davidson game in 2009. (Getty file photo)
Stephen Curry talks with ESPN's Dick Vitale after a Davidson game in 2009. (Getty file photo)

COLONIAL ATHLETIC

League Pomeroy ranking: 22nd out of 32.

Defending champion: Charleston.

Regular-season champion: Hofstra.

Best player: Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra.

Sleeper: Don't overlook Charleston, which won nine of its final 11 games, went 6-2 against teams on its side of the bracket and has the tourney in its backyard.

Multi-bid potential: Probably none, although Hofstra has 25 wins and ran off 16 in a row at one point.

Minutes pick: Charleston (29).

CAA Patron Saint of March: George Mason and VCU both made the Final Four out of the CAA, but the nod for the single player who did the most for the conference in March goes to David Robinson of Navy. He took the Midshipmen to three straight tournaments from 1985-87 and won four NCAA games, doubling the total of NCAA wins in school history.

MAAC

League Pomeroy rating: 28th out of 32.

Defending champion: Iona.

Regular-season champion: Iona.

Best player: Quinnipiac wing Cameron Young.

Sleeper: Quinnipiac is just weird enough to win a weird league. The Bobcats finished the regular season on a three-game home losing streak and a five-game road winning streak.

Multi-bid potential: Absolutely none.

Minutes pick: Iona (30).

MAAC Patron Saint of March: All-time great Lionel Simmons led then-MAAC member La Salle to the 1990 second round by dropping 32 points and 16 rebounds on Southern Mississippi in the opener. He scored 28 more in a losing cause against Clemson two days later.

WEST COAST

League Pomeroy ranking: Eighth out of 32.

Defending champion: Gonzaga.

Regular-season champion: Gonzaga.

Best player: Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga, unless it's Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga.

Sleeper: Loyola Marymount's two losses to the Zags were by 31 points total — compared to the rest of the league, that's pretty good. So, sure, let's go with LMU.

Multi-bid potential: Doubtful, in part because the Zags have inflicted so many massive beatings on the other top teams. But Saint Mary's and San Francisco are solid teams.

Minutes pick: Gonzaga (31).

WCC Patron Saint of March: In the mid-1950s, when the league was known as the California Basketball Association, a guy named Bill Russell led San Francisco to back-to-back national titles and 57 victories in 58 games. (The lone loss was an early season game against UCLA, when John Wooden was trying to get the Bruins up and running.)

SUMMIT

League Pomeroy ranking: 24th out of 32.

Defending champion: South Dakota State.

Regular-season champion: South Dakota State.

Best player: Mike Daum, South Dakota State forward.

Sleeper: Omaha has won seven of its last eight, including an upset of the Jackrabbits, and has had the most efficient offense in the conference during league play.

Multi-bid potential: Not in this lifetime.

Minutes pick: South Dakota State (32).

Summit Patron Saint of March: Ken "Mouse" McFadden was a tough New York guard on Cleveland State teams of the mid-1980s. He led the Vikings to the 1986 Sweet 16 with upsets of Indiana and St. Joseph's before losing to David Robinson and Navy.

HORIZON

League Pomeroy ranking: 18th out of 32.

Defending champion: Wright State.

Regular-season champion: Wright State and Northern Kentucky tied for the title, With Wright State getting the No. 1 tourney seed.

Best player: Drew McDonald of Northern Kentucky.

Sleeper: Green Bay's spastic style could be a tough matchup for deliberate Wright State in the semifinals. The Phoenix are the only team to beat the Raiders in the last month-plus.

Multi-bid potential: No.

Minutes pick: Wright State (33).

Horizon Patron Saint of March: Shelvin Mack scored 214 points in the great Butler NCAA tournament runs of 2010 and '11, hitting 40 three-pointers. Gordon Hayward was only around for the first of the Bulldogs' two Cinderella title-game appearances; Mack was there for both.

Ronald Nored (5), Gordon Hayward (20) and Shelvin Mack (1) celebrate a Butler win during the 2009 college basketball season. (AP file photo)
Ronald Nored (5), Gordon Hayward (20) and Shelvin Mack (1) celebrate a Butler win during the 2009 college basketball season. (AP file photo)

NORTHEAST

League Pomeroy ranking: 29th out of 32.

Defending champion: LIU Brooklyn.

Regular-season champion: Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Francis (Pennsylvania) tied for the title, with St. Francis getting the top seed.

Best player: LIU Brooklyn senior wing Raiquan Clark.

Sleeper: Robert Morris is a painful offensive team but the best defensive unit in the league. If this tourney devolves into a rock fight, which seems likely, that gives the Colonials a chance.

Multi-bid potential: Hahaha.

Minutes pick: Robert Morris (34).

NEC Patron Saint of March: Coached by Jim Valvano, towering Iona big man Jeff Ruland led the Gaels to a first-round victory in 1980 over Holy Cross, then pushed Georgetown before falling in the second round.

PATRIOT

League Pomeroy ranking: 21st out of 32.

Defending champion: Bucknell.

Regular-season champion: Bucknell and Colgate tied for the title, with Colgate getting the top seed.

Best player: American University guard Sa'eed Nelson.

Sleeper: It's an extreme long shot, but Boston University (14-17, 7-11) did manage to get season splits with both of the league's co-champs.

Multi-bid potential: No.

Minutes pick: Bucknell (35).

Patriot Patron Saint of March: CJ McCollum went off for 30 points, six rebounds and six assists to lead Lehigh to a shocking upset of Duke in the 2012 tournament.

AMERICA EAST

League Pomeroy ranking: 26th out of 32.

Defending champion: UMBC.

Regular-season champion: Vermont.

Best player: Vermont forward Anthony Lamb.

Sleeper: UMBC, last year's stone-cold stunner, won 10 of its last 13 games and split with the two teams ahead of it in the standings, Vermont and Stony Brook. And as the only team in the league that has finished its regular season, the Retrievers get some extra rest before the tourney begins Saturday.

Multi-bid potential: No.

Minutes pick: UMBC (36).

America East Patron Saint of March: Not a difficult choice. Jairus Lyles of UMBC. Ask Virginia about him.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Texas Tech (37) rampaged to its eighth straight win Monday night, thumping Texas by 19 points — but the Red Raiders only put 70 points on the board. That ends a string of four straight games scoring 80 or more points, and that was the first time Tech has done that since 2012. The last time the Raiders did it in four straight conference games: 2005.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Johnny Dawkins (38), UCF. His bounce-back job after Stanford is going quite well, thank you. In his third year in Orlando, Dawkins has taken the Knights to a 22-6 record punctuated by one hell of a week just passed: a strong win at rival South Florida followed by a major upset of then-No. 8 Houston on a day when ESPN's "GameDay" was in town to laud the Cougars. That should punch UCF's first NCAA ticket since 2005.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Jamie Dixon (39), TCU. He's done great work since returning to his alma mater in 2016, but this season is unraveling in a hurry on the Horned Frogs. They've lost three in a row and six of their last seven — four of them at home — to turn a solid NCAA tournament berth into what should be a long shot, given the 6-11 Big 12 record.

BUZZER BEATER

When thirsty in the bedrock basketball town of Bloomington, Indiana, after a double-overtime marathon game, The Minutes recommends a visit to The Orbit Room (40), a cellar hangout downtown. It's open late and it's nothing fancy, and there may be Earth Wind & Fire on the old-school stereo when you walk in — all of which is fine when most of the rest of the city is closed. Try an Evil 3 Triple IPA from California-based Heretic Brewing Co. — one of five beers Heretic makes that have the word "evil" in the name — and thank The Minutes later.

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