NCAA could put on better tournament

This time last year, Georgia fans were beside themselves. They were filled with euphoria about one of their teams they rarely even think about: their men’s basketball team.

But they had good reason to be so excited. The Bulldogs pulled off one of the most stunning runs through a conference tournament ever to win the SEC tournament and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Really, however, the word earned is being used a little too loosely in that instance because the Bulldogs were absolutely awful for most of the season and got into the tournament only because of four unforgettable days. Georgia’s run was also an example of what can be improved upon with the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA tournament, as it is, is close to perfect. It’s a month of basketball, excitement and tremendous story lines. It’s also a chance to watch college basketball without listening to Dick Vitale make a fool of himself, and that’s always a good thing.

In short, the NCAA basketball tournament is everything that college football at the highest level is missing. It’s the right way to crown a national champion, and it’s gut-wrenching television at the same time.

But the tournament and the next month of basketball can be even better. And it’s a pretty easy fix. Get rid of the automatic bids that go to conference tournament champions and eliminate the teams that have no real chance to compete.

The argument against this is that by getting rid of the automatic bids, the tournament would lose some of its soul and terrific story lines that go with all those smaller tournament champions being involved. The opposite, however, is true. In fact, there would be more good story lines because there would be more compelling and competitive games, and the new bids would not necessarily go to teams from power conferences. There are quite a few of the smaller schools that will be left out each year because they stumble in their conference tournament.

Take Davidson, for example. Last year, Davidson and Stephen Curry were the story of the tournament. But this year, Davidson won’t be involved because it fell in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals, and the Southern Conference is usually a one-bid conference.

So instead of seeing Davidson in the field, we’re stuck with Chattanooga, a team that, like Georgia last year, just got hot for a couple of days to take the conference’s automatic bid. That means Davidson, which had a chance to forge another interesting story line this March, will be in the NIT while Chattanooga won’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In essence, Davidson’s full season of quality basketball against some of the best teams around has been trumped by Chattanooga winning the conference title on its home court.

There are numerous examples of that scenario each season, and there is no way that is the best thing for the tournament that determines the national championship.

The tournament needs to be, and can be, more competitive by getting rid of the automatic bids and selecting the best 68 teams in the country. That’s right, 68. Instead of having just one play-in game the Tuesday of the start of the tournament, there should be four, one per regional.

The winners of those four games would then slide into the 16-team regionals and fill out the field. But it would be the best 68 teams, not 58 really good ones and 10 that have no chance to compete.

That would certainly make March even more interesting and exciting than it already is.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or