Calipari slams talk of expanded NCAA tournament

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PITTSBURGH — Count Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari among the ever-growing group of outspoken critics against expanding the NCAA tournament.

Speaking Wednesday from Pittsburgh ahead of his No. 3-seeded Wildcats’ first-round matchup against No. 14-seed Oakland, Calipari urged officials to keep the tournament from ballooning past its current 68-team format.

Sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel last week there are ongoing discussions about expanding the men’s tournament to one featuring no more than 80 teams.

“I hope it stays where it is,” Calipari said. “You know, I know people get mad. They get mad at the committee. You won’t believe this. I’ve been mad at that committee a few times. But you may be mad because of your seed or where they’ve shipped you to. … But it doesn’t matter who the committee is. We’re all going to be upset.”

Calipari referred to the newly expanded format for the College Football Playoff and how more teams getting in will also mean more teams being angry over being left out.

“This is a business trip for me,” Calipari said. “And I’ll say everybody that’s in this thing, I would say they’d say the same thing — keep it where it is. Don’t mess with something that’s great.”

Oakland coach Greg Kampe, who is in his 40th season with the Golden Grizzlies, echoed Calipari in spurning the possibility of a tournament with as many as 80 teams.

“This is the holy grail for mid-majors, right? It is,” Kampe said. “And I’ve said this many times over the last week. The NCAA basketball tournament — please don’t change it, please don’t change it. But it is one of the three greatest sporting events in the world.”

Thamel reported that one consequence of expanding the field and revamping the qualification and bid process could be fewer mid-major teams making the tournament’s main draw. The inclusion of more Power 5 programs could mean teams from smaller, one-bid conferences have to win their way into the main bracket through play-in games similar to the tournament’s current First Four format, reducing the probability of Cinderella teams making deep tournament runs.

In making his argument, Kampe spoke about the magic of the underdog and cited Jimmy Chitwood, the fictional character in the movie “Hoosiers.” Chitwood’s character was inspired by Bobby Plump, the real-life player who hit the game-winning shot to lift Milan High School to an improbable Indiana state high school basketball championship in 1954.

Kampe said he would support expanding the tournament if it helps smaller programs like Oakland to make the field.

“If that’s the only way we’re going to stay in it, then I’m for it,” he said. “What I’m saying is, don’t keep us out. You know, we’re what make this tournament — the little guy. Why does everybody love “Hoosiers,” right? The greatest movie. Why? Because the little guy. … That’s what college basketball is. That’s why it’s one of the three greatest sporting events in the world. … Don’t take that away from us.”

NC State coach Kevin Keatts didn’t agree with his coaching peers. To Keatts, tournament expansion would benefit players from programs of all sizes. Like Calipari, he used college football to make his argument, citing the bowl system as a way for athletes to get postseason experience.

“I totally disagree with them,” Keatts said. “And not just because I just want to disagree with them. I think there should be some expansion. I just think it’s too many student-athletes that do not get the opportunity to play in postseason. When you look at football, they don’t have that issue. You can make a bowl game in under .500 now, and the experience of — you know, we talk about the student-athlete experience, and the only thing that really, in my opinion, that has not changed is expanding the tournament. And I don’t have a number. I don’t know what that should be. But I do think we should give more schools opportunities to be able to get in the tournament.

“All of our conferences, all of our Power 5 conferences are going to 17, 18 teams. The ACC, which I think is really not fair, we’re getting 5 out of 15. If we get 7 out of 18, it’s not a pretty number.”

Before taking over at NC State in 2017, Keatts spent three seasons at UNC-Wilmington, leading the school to two NCAA tournament appearances. He said his time with the Seahawks affected his view on an expanded tournament.

“When I was at a mid-major, I thought I should have an opportunity,” he said. “I was at UNCW, we had won 28 games, and if I didn’t win that championship game, no matter what I did, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play in the tournament. So somehow we gotta figure it out, and I’m not saying you gotta load it up with high-major teams. I’m saying that more student-athletes, in my opinion, should have the opportunity to play in the best postseason tournament in college.”

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