For hoops fans among us, the next four weeks will offer some of the most exciting times of the year as conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament begin to take center stage. But the likely contenders in this year’s Big Dance show that further expansion beyond the current 68 teams is misguided.

Although the conference championships don’t make me as giddy as they did in grade school when my teachers would show Louisville or Kentucky in daytime first-round matchups instead of teaching class, they still play an important role in the college basketball postseason.

Under the current setup, the winners of each conference tournament (except the Ivy League, which doesn’t hold one) are given an automatic spot in the Big Dance. The remaining 36 spots are selected by the NCAA’s selection committee.

For years, former Indiana and Texas Tech coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight has argued that conference tournaments — and the automatic bids given to each tournament winner — should be done away with, and the field for the NCAA tournament considerably expanded.

In 2011, the NCAA adopted a half-baked version of this idea when they created the “First Four,” a first round from which the winners enter into the field of 64 teams. This expanded the field to 68 teams in total. Although mostly a naked money grab, it was partially explained as an opportunity to take more teams off the bubble, where teams with solid credentials may be excluded by the selection committee.

But unless all 348 schools in the NCAA’s Division I are allowed to play in the tournament, there is always going to be a bubble. Sentimentalists might say that expanding the field would allow for more Cinderella stories, but those touching tales don’t often come from teams that suddenly explode in postseason after a mediocre year.

Conferences, even in this era of instability, are the backbone of college athletics. Most of a team’s rivals are in their league. League matchups create excitement and the race for seeding in conference tournaments generates even more attention.

Just watch the Big East this week: Now that Syracuse has clinched the top spot, five teams are dueling for the remaining three double-byes into the conference tournament’s quarterfinals. Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III says he’s not sweating the double-bye, but the fans of the teams in contention for the spots certainly are.

Knight argues that the main purpose of conference tournaments is to create more revenue, but conference tournaments really do make magic. Championship Week is one of the most dramatic weeks in basketball, and the pressure of the bubble — with some teams needing strong conference tournament showings to make the Big Dance — makes it all the more exciting.

And just as eliminating conference tournaments wouldn’t serve the game, popping the bubble by expanding the tournament field is a bad idea.

Joe Lunardi, the ESPN analyst whose online examination of the changing picture of the NCAA tournament field becomes a must-read for sports junkies this time of year, predicts that South Florida, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and Colorado State will be the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament.

Of those four squads, St. Joe’s, South Florida and Colorado State have wins over ranked teams. Those wins, for the Hawks against Creighton and Temple, for the Bulls against Louisville and for the Rams against New Mexico and San Diego State, came against teams that are on the periphery of the top 25.

In the national tournament, especially as one of the last teams in, you have to play against – and beat – the likes of Baylor, Florida or Ohio State, if not Kentucky, Syracuse and Michigan State. Nothing from the regular season suggests any of Lunardi’s bubble teams could contend with the upper echelon of the Big Dance.

Knight and other NCAA critics do make one very strong point about field selection, however. The system of automatic bids, which kowtows to the NCAA’s real constituency — the conferences — lets some of the nation’s worst teams into college basketball’s championship.

For example, Long Island University Brooklyn, a team very few people have ever heard of, will get an automatic bid to the first round if they win the Northeast Conference’s tournament. They will travel to some far-off city and be pitted against a Hall of Fame coach with a team of NBA prospects.

If they are lucky, they may hang with their rivals in the first half. Assuming it’s even still a game in the second frame, the power conference team will put on a show after the intermission, rout the Blackbirds and send them back to Brooklyn.

Those kinds of matchups degrade the tournament, and if a good system needs any tinkering, it might be stripping some leagues of their automatic bids. Expanding the tournament — or eliminating league tournaments in the power conferences — shouldn’t be on the table.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and Deputy Sports Editor of The Hoya. Top of the Key appears every Friday.

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