The SEC's March Madness failures show the greed of Greg Sankey's expansion efforts

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has had a lot to brag about during his time leading the conference. Football tournaments. Improving basketball programs. a lot of money. The expansion of the conference only increased the value of its league and the power it held. Things are very good in Birmingham.

But he started putting a lot of dunks on his chip, getting off his skates, and getting a little greedy, and the fans started to get bored with that. And so it seems to the basketball gods.

One week after Sankey knocked off the minor conference champions, some of the best teams in the league showed exactly why the NCAA Tournament is as perfect as it is and doesn't need more teams from leagues like his at the expense of these young players.

Sankey told ESPN recently“We give highly competitive opportunities to the automatic qualifiers (from smaller leagues), and I think the pressure will go up as we have more competitive basketball leagues eventually due to (conference) expansion.” Tell The athleteDays later, Kyle Tucker said the automatic qualifying positions for the mid-majors are “part of the review.”

The following week, No. 14 Oakland beat Kentucky, and No. 13 Yale beat Auburn, wins for the type of program that Sankey said aren't as worthy as those in “higher” leagues like the SEC. Its conference, tied for the most teams in any league with eight, started 1-5 in the tournament, with all five losses coming to the lower seeds. Only three members of the league reached the second round.

The more Sankey pays attention to this and other issues of competitive balance, the more he becomes a villain to fans, and the person people attack to vent their frustration about the changing landscape of college sports.

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It was the SEC that initiated a massive round of conference realignment with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma in 2021. And it was Sankey who launched a media blitz before the Football Conference Championship games in December, lobbying for the SEC to participate in the game The College Football Playoff even if No. 1 Georgia loses later that day. Alabama was ultimately chosen over undefeated Florida State, an unprecedented and controversial decision. It is Sankey's conference, along with the Big Ten, that was forced to move to largely unequal conference payouts to the CFP starting in 2026 and are pushing for more guaranteed bids to their leagues.

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Next: Tilt America's most popular tournament even more in their favor to fix the so-called problems they've created for themselves.

With all this power and influence, arrogance began to emerge. Sankey has talked about expanding the NCAA Tournament before, including in his role as co-chair of the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee, but his dismissive comment about automatic playoffs on the eve of the tournament was deeply offensive to many people across college sports.

That was also very wrong. Big upsets in high seeding occur more frequently and lead to deeper Cinderella rounds than ever before, and the SEC has generally struggled in this tournament (including an 0-2 record against the Ivy League the past two years). Sankey should have known better. He walked right into this. He deserves to have the matter brought back to him. His argument was complete nonsense.

Teams like Oakland, Yale, and Duquesne (which knocked off No. 6 BYU) aren't supposed to carry the weight of all the mid-majors on their backs. They have enough to worry about. But they're tasked with representing the legitimacy of all programs and conferences like them this year, for fear that people like Sankey will point out and say they don't deserve to be here and we should add more power conference teams at scale.

Instead, what happened is what happens every March. Greg Camby, in his 40th season as Oakland's coach, earned a win that will serve as his obituary. Oakland's Division II transfer specialist Jack Gohlke beat out lottery pick Red Sheppard of Kentucky. Duquesne, with his coach retiring, won its first tournament match in 47 years. Yale students finally got something going their way (well, maybe not this thing).

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In the first round, that's what people talked about. Which It just means more. The bubble fate of an Oklahoma team that went 8-10 in conference play doesn't make the field.


Sankey watched as both SEC Tournament finalists, Auburn and Florida, bowed out in their first tournament appearances. (Christopher Hanwinkel/USA Today)

Basketball is not football, as history has shown that the greatest talent pools always win, and the majority of those pools come from the SEC. Americans love the NCAA Tournament because every team is treated equally. Whether you win the Horizon League, Ivy League, or SEC, you'll get in and get a chance. Year after year, the Surprises are the memories that casual fans remember.

I believe that having ever greater financial and staff discrepancies is not enough. Leaders like Sankey seek every dollar and advantage, regardless of what that pursuit leaves in its wake. It's not just Sankey; Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark also publicly supported expanding the tournament, acknowledging that it would be better for his league. But he's not as strong as Sankey. Big Ten Commissioner Tony Pettitte has been smart enough to stay largely out of the public eye even though he harbors many of the same sentiments, especially regarding football. He should be pressured on this matter as well.

Sankey pointed to UCLA's 2021 Final Four run from the First Four as a data point in favor of expanding power conference consolidation, conveniently ignoring that VCU made the same run in 2011. (First Four participant Colorado added heft to his argument by beating out Florida on Friday, ensuring the SEC will finish the first round no better than .500.) Fairleigh Dickinson, which was shipped to a 16-seed First Four game last year, turned around and beat Purdue.

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Expanding the mini-tournament to 72 or 76 teams, which officials say are the most likely options at this point, would likely punish smaller conferences by creating more play-in games for No. 16 seeds (although the exact format remains unclear). That could drop Oaklands, Yale, and Duquesne into another seed, all so we can have a few power conference teams that are barely above .500. Feeling excited?

The SEC did a lot of cheering this year because it was one of the best basketball leagues in the country. A single-elimination tournament isn't the best judge of that, but when more than half your teams lose to lower seeds, it's a tough look. That's why we play these games.

It is no exaggeration to say that these first-round upsets could play an important role in the future of the tournament. Public reaction is still important. The leak of the 3-3-2-2-1 automatic bidding model under discussion among CFP leaders was met with quick public pushback, and expansion to at least 14 teams has been postponed for the time being. Perhaps some underdog rounds and harsh reaction to Sankey's comments will delay the tournament's expansion as well. It certainly doesn't hurt. The basketball gods have done their part. How far Tennessee, Alabama and Texas A&M will stretch is the story the SEC is telling this month, but the other five schools that entered the field did not support Sankey's bold stance.

Throughout this opening weekend, almost every coach, player and fan expressed how much they love this tournament for what it is and what it represents. Officials must be reminded of this.

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(Photo: Steve Chambers/Getty Images)

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