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ACC proposal for a 346-team NCAA college basketball tournament won’t work

Many years ago, on Selection Sunday, I was walking off the college basketball set in Bristol after the mostly annual debate with Digger Phelps over the merits of a certain big-name school (let’s call it Notre Dame) and a worthy mid-major trying to crack the NCAA tournament field (Siena, in this case).

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The debate had gone as per usual. “Notre Dame wouldn’t lose a game in the MAAC,” Digger insisted. “We’ll never know,” snickered the bracketologist, “as the MAAC would probably require the Irish to play half of their league games on the road.”

Waiting in the green room was a fairly accomplished figure in the sport, who also happened to be a friend of Phelps. Regardless, Bob Knight barked in my direction, “Lunardi, why do you take that crap? Aren’t you the guy who’s right all the time?”

Knight added, “I’m going [on next] to say we should double the field to 128 teams and end all this baloney [not his real word]. Would I be a jerk [also not his real word] if I said that?”

Reminding Knight that between us we have 902 wins — all his — I respectfully suggested he take a look at some of the teams on my board that would make the tournament under his plan. “They’re not good enough to play for a championship,” Knight quickly realized, thinking perhaps of his own trio of NCAA titles. “Thanks for setting me straight.”

After a good night’s sleep, perhaps the current ACC head coaches will come to a similar conclusion. Because their idea to conduct an all-inclusive NCAA tournament in 2021, however well-intentioned (color me skeptical), is going to crash against the rocks.

Don’t believe me? Consider:

There are 346 Division I schools eligible for NCAA tourney play this coming season. That is 324 more teams than the NBA sent to its Orlando bubble. Conservatively estimating each school’s travel party at 25, we’re going to repeatedly test and quarantine more than 8,000 people? Just so half of them can lose and go home after 40 minutes of basketball? I don’t think so.

The bracket itself, while amusing, would tax even the best of us. The basic math dictates that 166 teams receive opening round byes. The remaining 180 would play 90 additional games to create a symmetrical field of 256 teams, followed by a tidy eight-round gauntlet through the Final Four.

All told, we’re increasing the number of games — with commensurate travel and risk — from 67 to 345. That’s a fivefold increase and, while epidemiology is not my “ology,” I do know that infectious disease transmission is not arithmetic. We would be looking at way, way, WAY more than five times the amount of exposure.

All of this so that Chicago State, which has averaged four wins per season over the past five years, can be part of a “celebration of the game?” No disrespect to the Cougars, but that makes about as much sense as putting the expansion, winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1976 NFL playoffs.

The NCAA tournament isn’t an exhibition. It isn’t charity. It is an earned opportunity to compete for a national championship.

If the ACC coaches were really interested in celebrating the sport, they would play a road game at UNC Greensboro or Furman. In the meantime, I remained unconvinced this isn’t a self-serving ploy to avoid nonconference games and/or get every ACC team into the NCAA tourney.

But I’ll get started on a bracket just in case …

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