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College basketball can’t afford to become baseball

Enlarging the tournament, or pandering to just the power conferences, would send basketball down the same rotten road as the MLB.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The laughing man in the photo for this article does not play college basketball. He might pronounce Xavier wrong. He almost certainly doesn’t know the difference between a stagger screen and an elevator doors screen. His career, though, is analogous to what college basketball is toying with. That man in Francisco Lindor, and he’s a laughing, smiling, slick fielding, sweet swinging superstar that my hometown team will make no effort to pay what he is worth.

You see the Cleveland Indians are owned by the Dolan family. By most conservative measure the Dolans are worth $5.5 billion dollars. That is, for those of you scoring at home, a lot of money. The Dolans could resign Francisco Lindor to play shorstop for my beloved Indians for whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted and likely not even notice it the next time their Chase app updated. Just the franchise that Lindor plays for is worth $1.15 billion, up from the paltry (?) $323 million that Larry Dolan paid for it.

The Dolans won’t pay Lindor what he’s worth, though, because they don’t have to. Baseball announced that its ridiculous 16 team playoff structure is likely to continue past this season. This, in effect, means that mediocre teams will make the playoffs, owners will keep making profit, and stupid fans will keep thinking their team has a puncher’s chance. It also means Larry Dolan will keep being able to sell his water carriers on the idea that stars aren’t necessary because the playoffs are attainable either way. That disincentivizes trying to get better.

And that’s where this screed on how much I hate the ownership of my favorite team ties into college basketball. You can bet that this shortened season will lead to please for an expanded field for the NCAA tournament. Even on its own the NCAA has contemplated expanding the field because the NCAA doesn’t need pushed to make stupid decisions. This one would be disastrous for the same reason MLB’s is, it would make winning no longer a priority.

Coach K is the one who is championing the all inclusive field idea. It’s easy for him to, because it has no bearing on him. Duke will land the best players, will get coddled by the media, and will win games. Where the idea sucks is farther down the line. Take Xavier last year for instance. Some coaches and media members are pushing for a 96 team tournament this year. Xavier easily makes that tournament if it takes place in March of 2020. Even DePaul may get in. The question then becomes what import the regular season would have and what realistic incentive would middling high-major teams have to get better.

A 96 team tournament, and you can bet if the NCAA sniffs the money from that they won’t go back to 68, essentially renders the regular season moot. A simple KenPom top 96 bracket means hello to tournament team Kansas St., fresh off an 11-21 season. Losses to Pitt and Bradley don’t matter when a third of the nation gets in. How about Louisiana Tech? They had three quad one or two wins and a quad four loss, but they are in, and in easily. Bubble teams include a miserable Wake Forest team, Loyola Chicago, and Colgate. That’s appointment viewing for exactly no one. When the regular season doesn’t matter at all, you’ll get basketball being played like it doesn’t matter at all. That’s why the NBA regular season is such an interminable grind to get through that players regularly just skip games.

Further, the encouragement of mediocrity doesn’t make innovation as necessary. When Dave Leitao’s DePaul is in the field and 15-17 Georgetown is in easily, an argument can be made that trying to get to the cutting edge becomes less urgent. Two wins in March becomes a lot easier when your opponent for one of the games might be a UNC team that lost to Syracuse by 28 or a 12 win Iowa St. squad that lost back to back games by a combined total of 49 points. Those coaches and teams not motivated by a shot at the Final Four will suddenly find cruising by just that little bit easier.

The goal of every college basketball team at the start of the season is to get into the tournament. When nearly a third of the programs in the nation can do that, the necessity that spurs invention becomes lesser. Where now it is Travis Steele, Tony Bennett, and Jim Boeheim fighting for those final precious bubble spots, an expansion means the teams scrapping for the last spots are UCF, Pacific, and Ball State. These are not the hotbeds of game theory. Deprived of that fear of missing out, who is to say Coach Steele doesn’t take it just a little bit easier? Maybe that’s a few less defensive slides, a little less tape review, one fewer recruiting trip. Either way, it dulls and diminishes the product.

Major League Baseball is in the midst of ruining their product. Seeing college basketball make a correlating move would be just another gut punch landed by an NCAA that has proven to be shortsighted and ignorant in the past. Maybe we should just brace for inevitable.