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68 is a difficult number to work with

The poobahs of the NCAA are gathering this week to discuss the nuts and bolts of the new 68-team basketball tournament, and they’ve got a challenge on their hands.

After meeting in May, the [10-member Men’s Basketball] committee asked NCAA schools to offer opinions on the recommended expansion to four opening-round games, one in each region. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith confirmed there were three options on the list — making the eight lowest seeds in the tourney play in the opening round, making the last eight at-large teams in the field play or a combination of the two.

The only thing clear-cut heading into the meetings, which start Sunday, is this: There is a wide split between what the big schools and small schools want.

Teams playing in conferences such as the Southland, like [UTSA athletic director Lynn] Hickey’s Roadrunners, or the Southwestern Athletic, a league made up primarily of historically black colleges and universities, don’t want to be pigeonholed into playing an extra tourney game each year. Power-conference schools, which usually take most of the 34 at-large bids, think they should avoid the opening-round games, too.

So Smith and Hickey must figure out how to play both advocate and arbiter.

“My responsibility is to the groups I represent, so I need to be very well informed about what they want,” Hickey said.

I’d say the fairest solution is the combo plan – make the four bottom seeds, and the four last-in at large teams do the play-in games. The main problem with that, of course, is that it slots those at large teams in as 16 seeds, where they would otherwise likely have been no worse than 12 or 13. But it’s also not fair to essentially consign eight conferences to the minor leagues and deny them a guaranteed opportunity to play a team they’d never get to play otherwise. This to me is another argument in favor of the 96-team tournament plan that seemed to be on track earlier this year. An opening round with four games, much like the current play-in game, doesn’t feel like it’s part of the tournament as a whole. It feels more like an afterthought, or an extra obstacle to playing in the main event. There’s little drama, no chance of a Cinderella story, and likely very little audience for it. By contrast, an opening round with 64 teams (as would be the case with NCAA-96) or 32 teams (as you’d have in an 80-team tournament) feels like the real thing, with a diverse set of teams and much higher stakes as some of those teams will have aspirations for going deeper into the tournament. I understand the NCAA’s desire to take a baby step on tournament expansion, but now that they have done so and seen that what they got out of it was a baby improvement but a grown-up problem, I hope they’ll move up their schedule for considering when to take the logical next step.

NCAA tournament expands

To 68 teams, which is a lot less than 96.

The three-team expansion is much more modest than 80- and 96-team proposals the NCAA outlined just a few weeks ago at the Final Four. The move coincides with the new, 14-year broadcasting arrangement that interim NCAA president Jim Isch said will provide an average of $740 million to its conferences and schools each year.

So there will be four play-in games instead of one. That’s great news for the last three bubble teams, but I think it sucks for the auto-bid conferences that always get 15- and 16-seeds, because now instead of getting to play a Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, they’ll be stuck with a Vermont or a Prairie View. Which is to say, for half of them their Tournament experience won’t be any different than a regular season game for them, except it’ll be on TV. I suppose no one really cares about that, though.

The men’s tournament last expanded in 2001, adding one team to the 64-team field that was set in 1985. Talk of tweaking March Madness again generated a lot of chatter from fans worried the competition would be watered down and those who feared the additional bracket guesswork needed to predict a winner.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who favored expansion, said the proposal was “better than nothing.”

“As a coach I’d like to see more people get in but 68 is a good step and the easiest way, to have the least amount of turmoil,” Boeheim said. “There’s really no way to do a little bit bigger expansion. You can’t expand by eight, 10. There’s no way to figure that out. This is the easiest way and hopefully down the road there will be a bigger expansion.”

I seem to recall they went from 48 to 64 all at once, so I don’t think the 96 team proposal would have caused that much actual turmoil, outside of the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that these things always bring about. Be that as it may, there’s no reason future expansion can’t or won’t happen, and once people are used to the idea of 68 teams, it may be easier to take the step to 80. We’ll see how it goes.

NCAA 96 on the way

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the reactionaries begin.

The NCAA appears to be on the verge of expanding the men’s basketball tournament to 96 teams.

Insisting that nothing has been decided, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen nonetheless outlined a detailed plan Thursday that included the logistics and timing of a 96-team tournament, how much time off the players would have and even revenue distribution.

Shaheen said the NCAA looked at keeping the current 65-team field and expanding to 68 or 80 teams, but decided the bigger bracket was the best fit logistically and financially.

It would be played during the same time frame as the current three-week tournament and include first-round byes for 32 teams.

Although the plan still needs to be approved by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and passed on to the board of directors, most of the details already seem to be in place.

“We needed to make sure that we did everything possible to use the due diligence window to understand ourselves and understand what the future would hold,” Shaheen said. “So that’s what we’re doing, that’s the process we’re undertaking. We’ve been handling it every day for the last several months and years, as we studied for the benefit of the organization.”

As you know, I favor this idea, and I think that the doomsayers are largely full of it. Sure, this is about money as much as anything else – what isn’t these days? – but it’s also sensible and is in my opinion more likely to intensify interest in the tournament than dilute it. I also think you’ll see some more competitive games in the first round for the top seeds.

“I don’t see any watering down at all,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “I think there are a number of teams playing in the NIT that could have gotten in, and I think there will be more people and more excitement with more teams in.”

What you’ll get with NCAA96 is the 34 or so teams that everyone agrees are Tournament-worthy, plus the automatic qualifiers from the little conferences that seldom win games – bear in mind, of course, that the Horizon League, home of Butler, used to be one of those conferences – plus the teams that would have made it to the NIT, most of are better than many of the teams in the second group. Putting it another way, the 23 and 24 seeds of tomorrow are the 15 and 16 seeds of today. Whatever seeds survive to play the #1s will almost certainly be a tougher matchup for them than the 16 seeds are now.

Expanding the NCAA Tournament may still happen

Put me down as being in favor of this.

The NCAA started talking about [expanding the men’s basketball tournament] 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.”


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.”


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.

I made the relative percentages argument back in 2007 when I first heard about this. As I said back then, expanding to 96 teams would only require adding two more days to the event. The top eight seeds in each region get a bye, and the remaining teams play on Tuesday and Wednesday to reduce the field to 64; from there it’s business as usual. I’m old enough to remember when the tourney had only 48 teams participating, so to me at least there’s nothing special about having 64 teams – excuse me; sixty-five – as we do now. Besides the NIT, which would be obsoleted by this expansion, there are two other postseason tournaments now in existence, so it seems to me there’s plenty of demand for a bigger product. I think the argument in favor of a 96-team event is strong, but we all know what it will come down to.

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.”

That’s about the size of it. For an opposing view, see John Royal.