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Let us never speak of expansion again

3/16/2011

Last night, as the college hoops viewing public frantically scrambled to find TruTV on their cable packages -- come on, guys, it's not that hard -- and the first two games of the NCAA's new First Four unfolded in occasionally interesting fashion, one thought popped into my head: compromise works.

When the NCAA settled on the 68-team bracket, it made a compromise. In exchange for some marketable form of tournament expansion, the NCAA would appease the howling masses and eschew the 96-team tournament idea it once seemed so determined to implement at last year's Final Four. When the NCAA settled on the half-and-half composition of the First Four, it made a compromise: It wouldn't hit the low-seeded mid-major underdogs too hard, but it also wouldn't capitalize on fan interest in the usually high-major at-large teams battling for No. 11 and No. 12 seeds.

Like its catchy, recognizable name, the First Four itself was a solid idea borne of the middle ground between the NCAA's bottom line and the college hoops fans' desire to preserve the integrity and excitement of the greatest month in sports. Even at this early date, it's safe to say that compromise worked. The last four at-larges can't whine about being there; they were all mediocre enough to miss the tournament. The No. 16 auto-bids might not like the idea of an extra game before the NCAA tournament, but the exposure those teams get should far exceed anything that happens in the ritual No. 1-seed blowouts on Thursday and Friday.

It's all good. Everybody's happy. No one's peeved. We can all embrace the First Four and the new 68-team field, even if we'll never call the First Four the first round. (Sorry, NCAA. Not gonna happen.)

And still, the notion lingers. What if the NCAA is just warming us up? What if the master plan is still to come? What if -- gasp -- 96 teams is still an option?

I thought we were done discussing this. Apparently, we are not. The 96-team field is like the monster your child insists she saw in the closet: No matter how much evidence you present to prove the monster isn't real, the child's fear remains.

That fear has been all over the place in recent weeks, especially now that the eyes of the general public (and the generalist media) have turned specifically to the state of college hoops' new tournament format. NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Gene Smith was asked about this in his post-selection teleconference, and the query came from a reporter who seemed to assume the NCAA already had a 96-team bracket in its back pocket. The transcript of that exchange:

Q: Given the stir that's already been created by several teams that got left out, isn't there sort of an inevitability that we're going to see another expansion here soon?

Smith: I'm real comfortable with the size of the field that we're blessed to have. As we went through the debate last year nationally and got feedback from all the different conferences relative to expansion, the feedback was loud and clear relative to that issue. We ended up where we are with 68 teams, the opportunity for 37 at large teams. I do not anticipate it will be something that will happen in the near future. We have great partners with Turner and CBS. I think from an individual perspective, I think we're real comfortable where we are.

Given the unique ability for equivocation Smith showed Sunday night, this counts as one of the few questions the chairman actually answered. And the answer was, basically, "no."

To be fair to the worriers, the NCAA hasn't done the best job of allaying any public belief that a future expansion is "inevitable." On Sunday night, Smith constantly referenced the number of "very good ballclubs" that were left out of this year's field, even though the rest of the world has spent all year complaining about this tourney's soft bubble and the landscape's lack of high-quality teams. Earlier this month, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen told the Associated Press that internal discussions about the size NCAA tournament would "always be on the list of topics":

"We're always going to be looking at what's the best way to contest the championship," Shaheen said. "Sixty-eight is certainly a start, and where it goes from here is anyone's guess."

OK, so here's my guess: The NCAA tournament stays the way it is for a long, long time.

For one, the NCAA doesn't need to expand the tournament. Indeed, it stands to gain little financially from doing so. This summer, the NCAA inked its new 14-year, $10.8 billion joint partnership with CBS and Turner, which will earn the NCAA $200 million more per season on average than the organization's previous deal with CBS. That is a whopping sum, and it came without the added promise of 28 NIT-worthy teams duking it out in early March. Not only that, but the flexibility offered by Turner's multiple networks will allow fans to see every minute of every game on CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV.

The money is there. The broadcast deal is there. What motivation does the NCAA have for expanding the tournament now? I can't seem to think of one.

You can understand the fear. The uproar over a 96-team bracket was louder even than the complaints about the BCS; coaches, who get to save their job if they say they made the NCAA tournament, were literally the only people pushing for this idea. Everyone else hated it. And for good reason.

We don't need to go over those reasons again. As Smith alluded to above, "the feedback was loud and clear."

Which is why this little blog post isn't directed so much at the NCAA, but rather at you, the reader. And you, the blogger. And you, the hoops writer. And you, the columnist. Stop talking about expansion. Stop asking about it. Stop acting like there is even a possibility it could ever happen, even if Shaheen and the NCAA refuse to rule out that possibility. Pretend the discussion never happened. Pretend the First Four is all we ever heard about expansion, and now it's here and it's fine and we're not complaining.

Right now, the 96-team field is but a myth. But it's like the monster in the closet: The more you talk about it, think about, worry about it and fear it, the more real it becomes.

Refuse to make the expanded field real. Ignore it. Forget it. If we all pitch in, maybe, just maybe, we'll never have to hear about that terrible idea ever again.