Monday, February 08, 2010

Will NCAA Tournament Expand?

There has been a lot of chatter lately about the future of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. The 64-team field became a field of 65 a few years back, as a 31st conference became eligible for an automatic bid.

(The rules state that 34 teams must receive at-large bids, so the field was expanded to 65 teams to avoid having to change the rule.)

The idea of expanding the tournament has been an open topic for a number of years, with advocates existing to take the field to 96 or 128 teams. Back in the days of the old radio show, I advocated an expansion to 96 teams, because I was intrigued by the idea of awarding first-round byes to teams.

Shockingly, the idea of a 96-team tournament isn't sitting well with some. Take Jim Delaney, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, who spoke with Sporting News Today in Monday's edition.

"I don’t know about threatening the popularity of the tournament as much as having more dilution of the regular season. I do think the tournament is elegant in the way that it’s structured, but I’m more concerned about, 'What does this mean for the sport of basketball from November through March?' I don’t think it would make the tournament less popular. It would affect it in some ways. There’d be different kinds of competition in the first and second round."

Delaney's right on one point. This change would not make the tournament less popular.

However, the argument about the sanctity of the regular season doesn't hold water.

Out of the 31 conferences that play Division I basketball and have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, close 20 of them will be one-bid leagues in any given year. Only one of those conferences -- the Ivy League -- does not use a postseason tournament to determine its automatic bid.

For these leagues, the regular season is completely pointless. A team could go 16-0 in league play, winning by an average of 25 points, and they would still miss the NCAAs if they didn't win the three-day league tournament.

Now, the commissioner of a power conference that makes a ton of money on its postseason tournament -- a tournament that is also used to give out the league's automatic NCAA bid -- wants you to believe that the regular season matters in the sport.


The addition of 32 teams creates a few problems. For starters, and this is going to sound ridiculous, the normal one-sheet bracket would die, and you have no idea what this could do to overall interest in the tournament. No one does, because the impact this has on office pools could be an issue.

(Of course, the NCAA will not have a clue about this, because in their minds, no one takes part in office pools. Riiiiight.)

Who gets the byes? The top 32 seeds? How about rewarding teams for actually trying to win their conference tournament by awarding an automatic bye to any team that wins its regular season and tournament championships?

There it is: Real incentive for a team to give it their all in their league tournament. Makes the quality of basketball in them much better.

Downside does exist here. There will be pushback from traditionalists, but the traditional 64-team field is no more. It will go to at least 66 by 2020, when the Great West Conference qualifies for an automatic bid for the first time. Traditionalists have a point, because the old field of 64 was special, but 64 is gone, and it's never coming back.

What's the harm of finishing the expansion to a point where they won't have to do anything again (unless they want to)? 128 levels the playing field, but can you imagine the craziness of 64 first-round games?

Not only that, but if you want to restore some sort of value to the regular season, is there a better way at this point than giving teams that are really good from start to finish a chance to earn a first-round bye?

The NCAA has some tough decisions to make, both with the size of the tournament and the broadcast outlet that wins the television rights. Hopefully, they aren't bogged down by bureaucratic BS, and they can make sane decisions that will help grow the scope of the championship, while also keeping in play many of the traditions that make it special.

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