The case for expanding the men's NCAA tournament to 80 teams

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL HAS been here before.

Exactly 50 seasons ago, the late Lefty Driesell's Maryland Terrapins were one of the best teams in the country. They rose as high as No. 2 in the national rankings and played NC State for that year's Atlantic Coast Conference title in Greensboro, North Carolina. They dropped that game in an epic overtime struggle, 103-100, to the eventual national champions.

But that generational Maryland squad featuring the likes of Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen would never face the other powers of the day--UCLA, Marquette, Notre Dame, etc. -- in the NCAA tournament because there were no at-large invitations to what was then a Not-Nearly-As-Big-A-Dance. Never a fan of NCAA bureaucrats, Driesell groused that no way would seven-time defending champion UCLA be excluded from the 25-team field under similar circumstances (the Pac-8 had no postseason tourney, so the point was moot).

Four years earlier, another iconic coach, Marquette's Al McGuire, told the NCAA to take a hike when tournament organizers slotted the No. 8 Warriors for the Midwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas, instead of the Mideast Region in much nearer Dayton, Ohio. Marquette opted instead to play in the equally prestigious NIT, knocking off St. John's at Madison Square Garden to win that title.

The sport's power brokers were facing an existential crisis in the 1970s. How could the NCAA rightly crown a champion when its own tournament didn't include all the best teams? One immediate remedy was the creation of a rule that banned any school invited to an NCAA postseason championship from participating in a competing event.

The rest of the NCAA's answer came in the form of incremental change. The 1975 tournament grew from 25 to 32 teams, allowing for a second bid for up to seven conferences. That move paid off just one year later when Big Ten rivals Indiana and Michigan collided in the title game and the Hoosiers capped the sport's last perfect season. The tourney field reached 40 teams by 1980, 52 by 1983 and the bracket of 64 -- with no limit on the number of at-large selections from a single conference -- becoming a fixture in 1985.

Minor changes aside, there has been peace in the Division I men's basketball kingdom for the better part of four decades. Even the First Four, which came about in 2011 and grew the field to 68 teams, has been accepted by the masses. Fans and bracketologists alike still quibble over the last few selections and some seedings, but no reasonable observer believes that any potential champions are being excluded.

Today's crisis is different. The evolution of major intercollegiate athletics is threatening one of the most universally loved sporting events on earth. As major college football schools continue to chase every dollar, a break-off from the masses -- including a separate basketball championship -- seems like a distinct possibility. What could be more capitalistic than a tournament featuring every power conference member? Or, worse, a tournament featuring only power conference members?