NCAA tournament expansion still possible

The NCAA has met with conference commissioners, university

presidents and athletic directors about the possibility of

expanding the men’s basketball tournament.

So far, it’s slow going.

The NCAA started talking about expansion in the fall, along with

numerous topics in all 88 championships, and hasn’t gotten past the

discussion stage yet.

“It’s still a work in progress, so there’s no further

developments or status from (the fall),” NCAA senior vice

president Greg Shaheen said. “It’s just a series of ongoing

dialogues with interested parties, but nothing definitive to even

analyze at this point.”

It certainly hasn’t stopped the conversation.

Many coaches and administrators like the idea of expansion and

believe its a necessary step to accommodate a growing game. There

are more teams than ever – 347 in Division I – more depth in the

bigger conferences and more talent at the mid-major level.

Whether it’s increasing the tournament field to 68 (four play-in

games instead of one) or enveloping the NIT to make it a 96-team

field, more teams are bound to add up to more excitement, the

thinking goes.

“If you’re talking about adding more teams, I don’t think the

games would change a bit,” Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said.

“They’d be just as competitive and I think you’d see more

Cinderella stories, more teams people didn’t think had a chance and

there’d be a lot more upsets if the NCAA expanded the

tournament.”

Another argument is that a larger field would give teams from

smaller conferences a better chance of getting in. Giving automatic

bids to the regular-season and conference tournament champions

would reward consistency while still allowing for surprise.

“That would add more relevance to the regular season, instead

of just having big games being bracket busters and things like

that,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I could see it going to

96, but if they do, I would like to see the regular season champs

rewarded. That would give the conferences who don’t get more than

one bid a chance to have two bids. If you expand, you would want

that to happen.”

In the current format, 18 percent of the teams get into the NCAA

tournament and another 9 percent receive invites to the NIT. That’s

far below the number of teams that get postseason berths in

football: 68 of 120 teams, or 56 percent. By comparison, 53 percent

of NHL and NBA teams get into the playoffs, 37 percent in the NFL

and 26 percent in baseball.

But to some, that low percentage is part of what makes the NCAA

tournament special.

The NCAA tournament, in a way, is like The Masters in golf.

Because it’s such a small field, just getting there is an honor and

adding to the field could cheapen the accomplishment. Expanding the

tournament also could devalue interest in the regular season,

reduce drama in postseason conference tournaments and possibly

weaken the NCAA field.

“I think it makes it a really special tournament when only 64

get in,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “I really like the

way it is right now.”

The heart of the issue is, as is always the case, money.

The NCAA has an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS, but can

opt out after this season. It has already consulted with several

networks and isn’t likely to pull the trigger on expansion without

a green light from TV. CBS has a strong interest in keeping the

tournament and other networks are reportedly putting together

bids.

“I’m sure what’s best for TV is what’s probably going to happen

and we all have to understand that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright

said. “We wouldn’t have the following we do in college basketball

if it weren’t for TV. As coaches and players, we’re just playing

games, and we’ll be fine with whatever it is.”

Expanding the NCAA tournament would not be simple. The NCAA

would have to figure what to do with the NIT, how the brackets

would be set up, how to handle byes, if it means the athletes will

be away from school longer, how the money will be divided up.

“I’d like to take a look at all that before I pass judgment on

whether it’s a good thing,” Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw

said. “The 64-team tournament has been special.”

The counter argument? If it is so special, why not let more

teams and players feel it, too?

“The magnitude of the NCAA tournament now is so big that it’s

just a great experience for a kid to have that opportunity to

play,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Most guys in college

don’t go on to play professionally, so if you can say you played in

the NCAA tournament, that really kind of changes your career as a

college basketball player.”

For now, it’s all speculation. The NCAA isn’t sharing details of

its plan – to the chagrin of some coaches – and doesn’t seem close

to making a decision.

“It’s worth discussing, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone who’s

come up with what would be the best formula,” Kansas coach Bill

Self said. “Football can’t figure it out and they deal with a lot

less teams. Just adding a few, there’s a pro and a con with

everything, so I don’t know what the suggestion or the formula is.

But I do believe it will be expanded in the next decade and I do

have feelings that somebody will figure it out.”