By Brad Thompson–

It’s official – March Madness is here and kicks into high gear this week as conference tournaments begin. Some sports fans say this is the best time of the year and I don’t argue with that. College basketball dominates the sports landscape, leaving fans scrambling to check scores and watching games on their phones, computers and TVs for weeks on end.

As great as March Madness is – last year it almost took a hit. All the talk about expanding the tournament field to 96 after last season might have seem like a good idea, but it wasn’t and this year proves it. The bubble is as weak as it’s been in recent memory. Most years, after the NCAA tournament brackets come out, I usually feel sorry for at least a few teams that had solid seasons but didn’t make the tournament. I don’t anticipate those feeling this year.

Maybe it’s because this year the committee expanded the Big Dance to a field of 68, so four would-be-snubs will receive bids, either that or because this year’s crop of bubble teams is incredibly mediocre. Regardless I’m glad, and you should be too, that we aren’t looking at a 96-team field. The popularity of the NCAA tournament is unmatched, but that doesn’t mean it should be watered down by expanding the field.

The main reason I’m against tournament expansion is because a field of 96 would render conference tournament useless for the power conferences. Teams could improve their seeding but wouldn’t be playing for their lives in the conference tournaments.

The Big Ten is a great example. Four teams finished in a logjam at 9-9: Michigan, Illinois, Michigan State and Penn State. So who makes the Big Dance? It’s likely that Illinois and Michigan will get bids, but nothing is written in stone. Michigan State and Penn State probably have to string together several wins to hope for a bid. If we had a 96-team tournament, all four of these teams would be in, and none of the first round, quarterfinals or even semifinals matchups would matter.

I recognize that the NCAA tournament is an extremely popular event and in the end money usually wins out, so we’re probably closer to a larger tournament field than I care to think about. In the meantime, I will be catching as much tourney hoops as I can this week because there’s nothing like watching your team win games on consecutive days against conference rivals to lock up a NCAA tournament bid.

Conference tournaments are still meaningful; let’s keep them that way.

Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.

brad thompson bio pic Thompson: Thankful For A Field Of 68, Not 96

Brad Thompson

Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.

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