Don't mess with Cinderella

I didn't mind when the NCAA Basketball Tournament field expanded from 16 teams to 32. I never complained when it increased to 48 teams, then 64. And, frankly, I didn't notice when it moved to 65.

Heck, I can even live with the idea of having play-in games for each of the four No. 16 seedings, instead of just one. That would expand the field to 68, with 17 teams in each of the four regions. Hey, go for it.

Before you get the idea that I'm agreeable to everything the NCAA might consider, however, please note: I've heard two suggestions this week aimed at improving the basketball tournament that I vigorously oppose:

The first suggestion involves doubling the field from 64 to 128. Sorry, but if you can't crack the top 64, you've got no business playing for the whole enchilada.

The second suggestion involves eliminating some of the automatic bids given to the 31 conference champions. Come on ... you can't have "The Dance" without Cinderella.

I'll concede that Big East also-ran Syracuse, which didn't make the 65-team NCAA field, is probably a better team than Southland Conference champ Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which did.

I'll concede that Albany (0-1) of the American East Conference, Belmont (0-1) of the Atlantic Sun Conference, Winthrop (0-6) of the Big South Conference, Wright State (0-1) of the Horizon League and Central Connecticut State (0-2) of the Northeast Conference are a combined 0-11 in NCAA Tournament play. And, yes, I suspect they'll be a combined 0-16 by Saturday morning.

On the other hand, lightly regarded Metro Atlantic champ Niagara (2-3) has won on the big stage. So has Mid-Eastern champ Florida A&M (1-3 after losing to Niagara in Tuesday night's play-in game).

And don't forget everybody's favorite Cinderella, Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference. Once dismissed as readily as a Central Connecticut State, the Zags now carry an impressive 12-9 record in NCAA Tournament play.

By the way, have you forgotten that unheralded George Mason was the big story in last year's Big Dance?

Americans love underdogs, so they cheer for the George Masons, the Gonzagas, the Albanys and the Belmonts. These teams prove that you don't need the biggest arena, the fattest recruiting budget or a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans to play winning basketball.

And consider this: When defending champ Florida got the No. 1 overall seed, do you know what its reaction was? Ho-hum. But when Jackson State played its way into the field, do you know what its reaction was? Bedlam.

Belmont's reaction? Bedlam.

Wright State's reaction? Bedlam.

Florida A&M's reaction? Bedlam.

Here's my suggestion for the NCAA Tournament: Leave those 31 automatic qualifiers alone, even if names like Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Central Connecticut State are much too big to fit in a headline.

Like I said: You can't have The Dance without Cinderella.

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