96 teams?

As all of you surely know, the NCAA is sending strong signals that it plans to expand the NCAA Tournament to include 96 teams.  Essentially, then, the NCAA field would include roughly the current fields of the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.  I really, really dislike this idea.  As many have pointed out, the NCAA Tournament has expanded before.  Per Wikipedia, the NCAA Tournament began in 1939 as an eight-team tournament, and expanded to 16 teams in 1951, included 22 to 25 teams beginning in 1953, expanded to 32 in 1975, 40 in 1979, 48 in 1980 (with some fiddling with play-in games that led to as many as 53 teams).  Setting aside the addition of the play-in, er, "opening round" game, the current format has been in place since 1985.  In other words, the current format is the longest-lived format in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and the time this format has been in place coincides with an explosion of  popularity of the Tournament.  What's so great about it?

 

First, the symmetry and the pace of the Tournament are unwittingly perfect.  Two rounds on the first four days of the Tournament.  Four days of wall-to-wall basketball yield to a three day break, and then two rounds on the next four days.  The Final Four, after 5 days of hype, begins the next weekend.  It's just enough basketball.  Under the 96 team plan, per yesterday's press conference, the top 32 teams would receive byes.  The bottom 64 of the field would play on Thursday and Friday.  The round of 64 (winners of the first round games against the 32 teams with byes) would be played on Saturday and Sunday. After just a single off day, the round of 32 would be played on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Sweet 16 would begin on Thursday, as it does today. The first round includes both the potential for huge upsets of the best teams in the country and competitive games between solid but not great teams in the 8/9 and 7/10 games. 

Further, that is a ton of basketball.  The NCAA Tournament would be played on 10 of 11 days.  No other sport, college or pro, does that with its postseason.  Not even baseball.  Sure, the junkies like me will keep watching, but if the NCAA thinks that they can simply multiply the TV ratings by 1.5, I think they are sorely mistaken.  We all know this is about money, but I'm not convinced it will be profitable.   The Tournament will add two days of play, but not two particularly compelling days of play.  Under the current format, all teams, from the #1 team in the nation to the lowliest 16 seed, play in the first two days.  Under the 96 team format, the best teams in this year's tournament playing on the first two days would have been Northern Iowa, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Louisville, and they would be playing the likes of Lehigh, Vermont, East Tennessee, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (although 16 seeds under the current format, the one bid leagues still would be at the bottom).  Under the current format, the 8/9 games were Texas/Wake Forest, Louisville/Cal, UNLV/Northern Iowa, and Gonzaga/Florida State.  Under the new format, the most evenly matched games would be between what now are NIT teams.  Wow, watch a Cinderella upset a team that went 9-9 in the Big East!  Watch 16-15 South Florida go toe-to-toe with 16-15 Penn State!  March Madness!

Not only will the new format do harm to the Tournament, it will hurt the regular season as well.  The only suspense in the major conferences will be who can get over .500.  This seems likely to hurt TV ratings by rendering the regular season more meaningless, and will create an incentive to further dumb down nonconference scheduling.  Why would a team like next year's Hoosiers play anyone decent in the nonconference?  Schedule a bunch of sub-200 teams, win 5 or 6 Big Ten games, and bank on the fact that the money-obsessed NCAA won't pass on an eligible IU team that always draws good TV ratings.  That may sound far-fetched, would the NIT ever pass on an eligible IU team, however they got over .500? 

This year's Tournament included 32 teams from the six major conferences.  There are currently are 73 teams in the six major conferences.  That means that about 43 percent of the teams from the major conference make it, as well as the champions and some at-larges for other conferences.  In short, I think that there is a pretty good dividing line right now.  Further, I think the controversy about bubble teams adds to the appeal of college basketball as well.  Without even trying, the NCAA invented the perfect basketball tournament.  And they want to ruin it on purpose.  March Madness, indeed.

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