SEC’s NCAA flop makes Greg Sankey’s push for tournament expansion look even more ridiculous

Now we know why SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants to stop “giving away” NCAA bids to automatic qualifiers from smaller conferences.

Those have-me-nots have the gall to keep eliminating his deep-pocketed league’s most ballyhooed programs.

The trend started Thursday night when a former Division II guard sank a barrage of 3s to fuel 14th-seeded Oakland’s stunning upset of eight-time national champion Kentucky. Sankey’s nightmare deepened less than 24 hours later when Yale shooting guard John Poulakidas delivered a career game on the biggest possible stage to help the Ivy League runner-ups take down SEC tournament champion Auburn.

Those humbling losses weren’t the only unexpected season-ending setbacks suffered by SEC teams the past two days. All but three of the SEC’s eight NCAA tournament teams failed to survive the round of 64 as Oregon exposed sixth-seeded South Carolina, Michigan State demolished eighth-seeded Mississippi State and Colorado edged seventh-seeded Florida.

The SEC’s poor showing is a welcome moment of schadenfreude for anyone who opposes Sankey’s lobbying to ruin the NCAA tournament. One writer called the SEC’s comeuppance “the greatest evidence for karma” that he’s ever seen. Another joked that Sankey “opened his big mouth before the tournament and the SEC immediately turned into the Mountain West.” Even the Ivy League social media staff got in on the trolling.

Jabs like that reflect the growing concern across college basketball that the power conferences intend to further tilt the NCAA tournament in their favor by creating more bids for themselves and less access for others. There is real fear that underdogs who give the NCAA tournament its charm will get squeezed out of the bracket, that the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights will be unhorsed, the Princeton Tigers will be declawed and the Saint Peter’s Peacocks will be defeathered.

The powerbroker pushing hardest for this is Sankey, who first encouraged colleagues to take a “fresh look” at expanding the NCAA tournament in August 2022 and then co-chaired an NCAA committee that formally recommended it six months later. Though he never said he envisioned an NCAA tournament with only power-conference teams, he also didn’t hide the fact that his desire for a larger field wasn’t about wanting more mid-majors included.

Citing the need to create a bracket that includes every realistic title contender, Sankey pointed to a 23-win Texas A&M team left out of the 2022 men’s tournament and to a UCLA team that advanced from the First Four to the Final Four the previous year. Conveniently omitted from Sankey’s talking points were deep runs from VCU, Wichita State and other mid-majors who narrowly made the NCAA tournament via at-large bids.

Earlier this month, in an interview with ESPN’s Pete Thamel, Sankey spoke even more candidly about how he envisions overhauling the NCAA tournament once the SEC and Big 12 expand to 16 teams and the ACC and Big Ten go to 18. Sankey told Thamel, “We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues], and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of expansion.”

That is thinly veiled corporate speak for the SEC needs more NCAA tournament teams so that it can make more money. And that Sankey is willing to create more access for the SEC and other power conferences at the expense of the tiny schools that make the NCAA tournament an annual can’t-miss spectacle.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants to overhaul the NCAA tournament and he hasn't been quiet about it. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants to overhaul the NCAA tournament and he hasn’t been quiet about it. (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

Nowhere else in American sports is there better evidence that on any given day, any given team can slay a giant. Nowhere else in American sports does a team of future real estate agents and insurance salesmen topple a team of future NBA players.

Between Sankey’s comments and surprise changes to the format of the NIT last October, there is palpable anxiety that this could be one of the last years that the NCAA tournament bracket looks how we’ve come to know it. Players and coaches at sites across the country have been asked how they expect the tournament to change moving forward.

Longtime Oakland coach Greg Kampe said Wednesday that he’s not in favor of expanding the NCAA tournament, but he’d tolerate it “If that’s the only way we’re going to stay in it.”

“What I’m saying is don’t keep us out,” Kampe added. “You know we’re what makes this tournament, the little guy.”

To Samford coach Bucky McMillan, who is four years removed from coaching high school basketball in Birmingham, American TV viewers often “identify with underdogs” because they themselves are underdogs.

“Most people are that team,” McMillan said. “The more teams that we can have in this tournament that are those mid-majors, Cinderellas, I think the better.”

When Sankey alludes to excluding small-conference teams from the NCAA tournament, others are quick to bristle because it puts the very future of the event at stake. You half expect him to advocate for double-elimination for the SEC and single-elimination for everyone else.

Even an SEC coach who lost on Friday seems to sympathize with the smaller conferences.

“This shows you how special March is,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, the former coach at mid-major Milwaukee. “Look, I was on the other side. I was a 12. I was a 13. I know how much this means to those mid-major programs that are fighting all year long to play in games like this.”