NCAA Tournament Expansion: 68 Is Better Than 96

Maybe this was the NCAA’s plan all along: to suggest that a 96-team Tournament field was not only an option, but a strong possibility. To answer questions about this potential new format, laying out exactly how it would work and why it would be an improvement over the current model.

Then, tell us they are in fact expanding the Dance, but only to 68 — a mere three additional teams.

The reaction to Thursday’s news that the field was going to 68, not 96, was overwhelmingly positive. OK, that’s an understatement. People were ecstatic. Have sports fans ever been so happy to hear that something was not happening?

I’m confident that had 96 never been mentioned, the reaction to an expansion, even a minor one, would not have been this positive. Instead, everyone was too busy rejoicing that it wasn’t going to 96 to get angry about the dissolution of the “pure” bracket. Maybe the NCAA realized this would happen, and used it as a way to sneak expansion past us.

Of course it’s also possible that the NCAA actually considered all of the public outcry. Because, much like the reaction to Thursday’s news, the response to the NCAA’s April 1 press conference at the Final Four was equally one-sided. Other than the NCAA higher-ups and some misinformed coaches, the 96-team bracket was a universally hated idea.

But perhaps the NCAA laid out the blueprint for 96 to the media so they could gauge the reaction, and then came to the conclusion that it was a bad idea.

I’m not sure how plausible either of these scenarios are. They might seem outrageous to you, but we’re talking about the NCAA here, so I don’t think either can be ruled out. Besides, the only other option might seem ridiculous, too: the NCAA was telling the truth all along.

After all, at no point in the press conference did NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen or anyone else representing the NCAA say that 96 was a done deal. In fact, they said the opposite: that a 96-team field was just one of three scenarios they were considering and that a decision had not yet been made. I read the entire transcript of that press conference, though, and it seems like they spent way too much time breaking down the details and answering questions about it if they weren’t close to implementing it.

So while I want to blame much of the media for overreacting and jumping to conclusions, had I been present at that press conference, I probably would have felt the same way.

Let’s also keep in mind that the NCAA told us on Thursday that the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee simply “recommended” a 68-team field to the Board of Directors, which will make the final decision on April 29. And while I don’t want to be fooled twice, all indications are that this is just a formality and, at least for 2011, the field will be 68.

How exactly the NCAA got to that number, however, might remain a mystery forever.

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3 thoughts on “NCAA Tournament Expansion: 68 Is Better Than 96”

  1. In addition to your theories, I believe the NCAA put the 96 team tournament on the negotiating table to attract ESPN into making a bid that paid more than the current contract; which ultimately caused CBS/Turner to increase their bid in both amount and length. The best way to get a raise is to get another company to make you a better offer and then use that new offer to get your current company to give you a raise. I think the NCAA used this technique on CBS/Turner and it sounds like it worked well. Plus, the NCAA maintained the option to expand further at a later date.On a semi-side note, Beano Cook firmly believes that people live up to their means. For example, if the NCAA and schools make more money with tournament expansion then they will start to spend more money (e.g., pay higher coaches salaries, build better facilities, spend more on recruiting) and the net profit will be marginal. His examples are with regard to college football and adding +1 game to the BCS system but the same can be said for basketball tournament expansion. Increasing the money associated with college sports is likely to be bad because schools/players/coaches will have a greater incentive to cheat (e.g., increased scandals, paying players, cheating on admissions) in order to achieve a bigger payoff.

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