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The NCAA basketball bacchanal will begin in two weeks.

But, this year there will be something of a pall over the proceedings. The investigation into improprieties at some of the countries basketball factories could put a damper on the party, much like a police cruiser parked outside a home hosting an illicit teenage gathering.

Snippets of information have been released, alluding to the fact that high profile coaches, players and programs could be affected.

To which I say – it’s about time.

The NCAA tournament is one of the major spectacles in American sports. Adults paint their faces and color their hair. The least ardent sports fans, those who have a problem distinguishing a basketball from a volleyball, fill out brackets for the office pool.

It’s something that deflects our attention from nuclear threats, school shootings and domestic political strife.

Unfortunately, money has corrupted the system. Millions of dollars are at stake, not on the tournament, but on each and every game. The success of basketball programs, even mid-major programs like SIU, are judged almost solely on the number of NCAA tournament appearances.

The question is why?

I scanned an online article this past week profiling the only 24 teams with a reasonable chance of winning the NCAA tournament.

Think about that for a second. A total of 66 teams will play in the NCAA tournament, and this source deemed only 24 have a legitimate shot of emerging as champion. Frankly, 24 seems like too high a number.

But, it got me to thinking.

A quick Google search of NCAA champions showed that since 1968 only 20 different schools have won basketball championships. There are 347 Division 1 programs in the country. Of those 20 teams, Marquette, Georgetown, Michigan, UNLV, Arkansas, Arizona, Maryland and Syracuse have won a single title.

In essence, there are 12 teams actually “competing” for the national championship.

It’s taken me a while to come to this realization. In recent years my interest in the tournament has disappeared once the last Missouri Valley team or the Cinderella du jour is eliminated. I really don’t care if Kentucky defeats Duke or North Carolina tops Louisville.

The unfolding scandal diminishes my interest even more.

The Salukis open Missouri Valley Conference play Friday. It is conceivable SIU could get hot and win three games in St. Louis. This isn't a prediction, merely a statement of possibility. If that happens, the Salukis earn a place among the 66 “elite” teams.

If that happens, history shows the Salukis have little to no chance of winning the national title. But, in the bizarre world that is NCAA basketball, just appearing in the tournament is important.

Schools earn cash for each step they advance in the tournament. And, NCAA appearances is the currency in which recruiters trade in.

As for the looming scandal, the best basketball fans can hope for is sweeping reforms that would make an NCAA berth something meaningful for mid-majors.

We can hope. But, I’m not holding my breath.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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