Only drawback to bigger tourney is smaller print

Instead of the usual hyperventilating, what we got this

Selection Sunday were halfhearted groans. Even the guys with

legitimate gripes held their tongues. Get used to it.

After learning their teams weren’t among the 65 invitees, the

harshest word coaches Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech and Bruce

Weber of Illinois could muster was “disappointing.” Mostly, they

blamed themselves. Either could have fumed about how much more

demanding it is to win in a big-time conference than in a

mid-major.

But both knew better.

This is already one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in

years, maybe ever. Get used to that, too. Instead of arguing over

who got left out, the conversation is about to shift to how many

should get in. The tournament is going to expand whether you like

it or not – if not next year then very likely soon after the NCAA’s

TV deal with CBS ends in 2013.

“A lot is at stake here,” NCAA senior vice president Greg

Shaheen said.

It’s worth noting Shaheen said that while attending a

CBS-sponsored event in New York last week. His organization has

until July 31 to decide whether to opt out of the current 11-year,

$6 billion deal, which means he and the CBS execs who were his

hosts could be facing each other across a bargaining table just a

few months from now. So far, though, both parties like the

arrangement.

“Our history is that CBS keeps events it wants to keep on the

network. We’ve always done a good job of renewing rights,” network

president Sean McManus said at the same event. “I think that

should follow then for the NCAA tournament.”

If only it were that simple. Because its contract with CBS is

backloaded, the NCAA will receive about $700 million a year, on

average, for the final three years.

The only way the NCAA opts out of the deal is if another

network, say ESPN, offers to match the money and adds more years.

And the only way that deal gets made is if the NCAA offers even

more product. And the chances that will happen, and when?

Depends on who you ask.

McManus, even while describing himself as just “an interested

spectator’ in the expansion debate, said, “One thing I’ve learned

about sports fans is that they’re very adaptable. The wild card

idea in baseball – a lot of hard-core baseball fans were opposed. I

think it now generates a lot more interest. Generally speaking,

when expansion has happened, it has increased interest in the

overall sport itself.”

Most of the coaches and former coaches who’ve chosen sides like

the idea. Bob Knight and John Wooden talked about opening up the

tournament to every Division I member years ago. Syracuse’s Jim

Boeheim, probably the most vocal advocate in the game today,

practically declared it a litmus test, suggesting any coach who

opposed expansion might be in the wrong business.

Boeheim proposed adding between four and six teams at a meeting

of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2006. Other

models range from a 68-team field on up to 80 or 96. Since the NCAA

gets most of its operating revenue from the tournament, look for

the final version will come in on the high end.

“Sixty-five teams has proven to be a winner in every respect.

With that being said, this is not about today,” said Dan Guerrero,

chairman of the basketball committee and another of CBS’ invited

guests. “It’s really about the future.”

Expansion has been on the agenda for several years now, but the

talk has only turned serious this season, in large part because of

the opt-out clause in the current deal. The NCAA has said even a

96-team tournament, assuming first-round byes for the top 32 teams,

could still be squeezed into the current three-week time frame.

There’s plenty of opposition, and not just from purists.

“Some are very, very open-minded about the possibility,”

Guerrero said about his discussions with athletic directors. “Some

don’t want to see it.”

The tournament included 32 teams in 1978. The last meaningful

expansion, to 64 teams, occurred in 1985. The number of schools

playing Division I men’s basketball that year was 284. There are

343 today.

Some of the same objections were raised each time the tournament

got bigger: expanding the field cheapens the accomplishment and

dilutes the impact of the regular season. Yet the sport has never

been more popular. The underlying appeal of the basketball

tournament, unlike the jerry-rigged football version run by the

Bowl Championship Series, is that it never fails to deliver a

worthy champion.

More teams will only enhance it – no matter how small the print

on your bracket page gets.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org