College Basketball Nation: NCAA tournament expansion

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.

NCAA president talks tourney expansion

October, 11, 2010
The announcement in April that the NCAA was expanding the men's basketball tournament to 68 teams came with the caveat from interim NCAA president Jim Isch that the number in the field would stay in place "for now."

And what does the incoming NCAA president have to say about this? Mark Emmert, the former university president at Washington who starts Nov. 1, offered this comment last month in an interview with FanHouse about the changes to the tournament.
I'm very pleased with where we wound up. I think we're in a good position from a competitive point of view. I think the decision that has been made to play that first round at a single site at Dayton, I think that will work really well. I think it's a very good place to start this new model. And I think it will prove to be quite stable. That doesn't mean change won't occur soon (laughs).

Um, about that laughing. Does he mean "haha, soon, yeah right" or "mwhahaha, get ready for 96?"

Well, it's probably somewhere in the middle, based on Emmert's latest interview with the Seattle Times where he's asked if further expansion is inevitable and how soon it will come.
I don't see anything in the near future. We obviously haven't played a tournament with the 68 yet, to see how it all works. I think it will be exciting. Let the future bring what it may. I'm very pleased with the structure we have now.

Recap of common-sense tourney expansion

September, 10, 2010
The dust, as they say, has settled.

With Thursday's announcement that the First Four would remain in Dayton, Ohio, the site of the opening round for the past 10 seasons, the NCAA officially completed its NCAA tournament expansion. The number of teams is settled. The format is settled. The brand -- "First Four" -- is settled. The TV contract is settled. The location, as of yesterday, is settled. As an overdramatic comic book villian might say: It is done.

And for all the fervor of the past six months, all the debates and confusion and outright whinging, there's really only one conclusion to be drawn from the NCAA's final expansion product. It just makes sense.

At every step, the NCAA had the opportunity to do something crazy, something unpopular, or both. It didn't. Instead, the NCAA's tournament expansion path was marked primarily by one wholly welcome quality: reason. Most college hoops observers would agree. We did not see that one coming.

For the sake of perpetuity, though, it's worth remembering. So let's take it from the top.

Step One: How many teams? 96? Please tell me it won't be 96. (But seriously, please tell me it won't be 96.)

Remember that? By April, the pertinent rumors surrounding NCAA tournament expansion were settled. They originated, as all things do, on the Internet, where they quickly caused mass hysteria: The NCAA was going to expand to 96 teams whether you liked it or not. The only thing left was convincing you why you did.

Things didn't get any more promising when the NCAA, after months of silence on the issue, finally addressed it at the Final Four on April 1. In the midst of its traditional state-of-the-NCAA speech, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen took the podium, where he proceeded to update reporters on the state of the deliberations over NCAA tournament expansion. This did not go well.

Shaheen introduced several options -- including the 68-team expansion we now know and love -- but spent a large majority of his time discussing the various merits of the 96-team format. It was somewhat horrifying, not only for Shaheen, who was mercilessly grilled, but for those of us who, for very good reason, became convinced yet again that the NCAA was convinced the best way to wring more money from its new television rights negotiations would be to create more games.

It didn't seem to matter that 96 teams would dilute the beauty that is the NCAA tournament, that it would be akin to stuffing a bunch of barely watchable NIT games onto the front end of what many consider the best postseason competition in sports. It didn't seem to matter that reporters were furious, that fans were up in arms, and that no one could come up with a really good, basketball-oriented reason for expansion. It was about money. It was that simple.

And then, 22 days later, the NCAA did something nobody predicted: It made the reasonable choice.

Rather than expand to 96 teams, the NCAA expanded to 68. It would add three more teams -- which three remained uncertain -- and create four "opening round" games. Gone was the notion of a No. 22 seed battling a No. 1; gone was the notion of your nice, neat, NCAA tournament bracket being torn to unwieldy shreds by the addition of 32 marginal outfits. Instead, sweet simplicity prevailed.

Why? Money. The NCAA announced its limited expansion the same day it announced its new TV rights deal -- a $10.8 billion agreement over 14 years with CBS and Turner, good for an average yearly increase of about $200 million from television rights alone. The NCAA tournament is the organization's largest and most important revenue source, and the NCAA was able to get that money without fundamentally altering the tournament format. Given the damage tournament expansion could have wrought on the casual fan, and given the money available without all those added teams, the reasonable thing to do was keep the tournament as-is. It's a guaranteed money-maker already. Why tinker with the format?

Which means the NCAA accomplished the following: Achieved some measure of expansion, landed a gigantic TV deal that will buoy the organization for the next decade-and-a-half, kept the tournament largely intact, and -- perhaps most awesomely, a word I just made up, because this next part is truly that awesome -- ensured that every single NCAA tournament game would be televised on one of CBS or Turner Sports' various networks.

Every game on TV. A ton of cash. The same tournament. Perhaps the NCAA will expand the tournament in the future, but it's impossible to argue that for now, the folks in Indianapolis reached the most reasonable compromise possible. They got it right. And that was just step one.

Step Two: Who plays in the play-in ... I mean, opening round ... I mean, First Four ... games anyway?

Settling on the nature of expansion and securing that new TV contract was the hard part -- hence the large block of text you just admirably soldiered through -- but it was just the beginning. The NCAA now had another choice to make: How would the extra teams factor in to the new-look tournament? Who would play in those games? What seeds would they receive?

There appeared to be two options. The first: Adding three more play-in games between No. 16 and No. 17 seeds, similar to the "opening round" game held in Dayton every year. The second, and more radical: Eschewing the low-seed format altogether and, in what could be a canny business decision, making the last eight at-large teams vie for No. 11, No. 12, and No. 13 seeds.

There were benefits for each, though more for the latter scenario. The last eight at-large teams always include some high-profile bubble teams with dedicated, travel-happy fan bases; in 2009-10, this group would have included Illinois, Virginia Tech, California, Florida, and a variety of other big-time programs. There's no better way to drum up interest in play-in games than by featuring teams the casual fan has actually heard of. This would have been a big deal.

Here's where the NCAA got reasonable again. If you want to be generous, you could even call it a stroke of genius: It did both. As you no doubt know, two of the opening round games will feature the traditional No. 16/17 format. The other two will feature the last four at-large teams fighting for seeds on the Nos. 11, 12, and 13 lines.

The risk to any compromise is that by trying to please everybody, you make everyone angry, but that's not what happened here. Instead, everyone's just happy. The NCAA and fans get two high-profile games, a few small mid-majors get to avoid the stigma of the opening round, and the marginal at-large teams that would have missed the tournament in past years will have to fight to get to the Thursday and Friday games. And the NCAA even came up with a handy, easy-to-remember brand name: the First Four. It's hard to see anything wrong with this solution.

Which, of course, brings us to step three.

Step Three: So, where?

Again, the choice came down to two options: Keep the opening round -- or First Four -- in Dayton, or do something crazy and radical and ultimately more fun. That option -- a dream scenario which would have seen the NCAA set up four separate regions for the First Four in historic basketball sites like The Palestra and Hinkle Fieldhouse -- would have been the exciting call.

In the end, the NCAA chose Dayton. It's the boring and uninspiring choice, but it's a fair one. The past 10 years, Dayton has ardently supported the play-in game; the city regularly turns out more than 10,000 fans for a game pitting two teams that have a less than 1 percent chance of advancing past the No. 1 seed that awaits them in the tournament bracket. It's hard to fault the NCAA for rewarding that sort of dedication.

It wasn't the sexy choice, but it was the reasonable move.

Upon review, that type of decision characterizes the NCAA's entire approach to NCAA tournament expansion. It may not always have been intentional, and it may not be permanent -- the NCAA has left the door to a future 96-team expansion wide open -- but it was almost universally intelligent, receptive and, above all, reasonable.

Would the NCAA tournament be better with 64 teams? Sure. Is the current setup better than anything we could have conceivably expected in early 2010? Absolutely. In the end, that's thanks to an NCAA men's basketball committee and an NCAA leadership that did the prudent thing at almost every turn.

Nice work, guys. Now don't screw it up.
In the end, the NCAA chose the unsurprising, boring, and ultimately sensible choice: The First Four will be held in Dayton, Ohio, the site of the NCAA tournament play-in -- er, "opening round" -- game for the past 10 years, according to a statement from the NCAA.

When the NCAA announced its limited expansion of the tournament this offseason, many, including yours truly, wondered whether the NCAA would do something radical with the First Four. After all, the concept itself -- combining two No. 16/17 play-in games with two games pitting the tourney's last four at-large seeds -- had the flair of an organization looking to shake things up. The most boring, palatable route would have been to use four play-in games; the most radical scenario would have used the First Four for the last eight at-larges. The NCAA's solution -- already a comedown from the much-derided 96 team idea -- was a compromise, but it wasn't without flair.

Which is why, once the format of those games was determined, it would have been fun to see the NCAA shake things up even more. The best idea would have seen the NCAA set up four historic regional sites -- think Hinkle Fieldhouse, Cameron Indoor Stadium, The Palestra, and, say, Allen Fieldhouse, or New Mexico's Pit -- each hosting one game with the NCAA tournament on the line. That would have been an awfully cool setup.

In the end, Ohio State athletic director and 2010-11 NCAA Men's Basketball Committee chairman Gene Smith considered those options, but decided to stay in Dayton thanks to the enthusiasm for the games in the past 10 years.

“Dayton hosted the opening-round game for the past 10 years and consistently attracted extraordinary crowds, including over 11,000 in 2009,” Smith said in a statement. “The enthusiasm the UD staff and the local fans demonstrated for hosting that game did not go unnoticed, so it makes sense to us to conduct the inaugural First Four in Dayton.

“We explored different options, including playing the first-round games at multiple sites, as well as the possibility of playing all games on one day, but we came to the conclusion that Dayton is the best location to host all four games for the 2011 tournament," Smith said.

That's a perfectly reasonable approach. Dayton fans and locals have been tremendous fans of the play-in games, which, let's admit, are not exactly star-studded affairs. If the past 10 years were a test to see how much Dayton loves college hoops, the city has consistently passed. Now it will be rewarded with three more games, two of which are likely to feature big-time bubble teams desperate to escape the opening round and keep their Dance dreams alive. That's a reward Dayton probably deserves.
There's been plenty of talk about the NCAA's new hybrid opening round. Much of this talk has centered on the real-world applications of the solution: Is it fair? Do mid-majors get jobbed? Are the last four at-larges being treated unfairly? Even if a tenuous offseason consensus is reached on the hybrid format, these questions will dog us up to and past the first tournament to utilize the new format. There will always be questions.

But there is one other question that, when you think about it, is just as important to the perceived success of the NCAA tournament as any other: What happens to my bracket?

Sixty-eight teams isn't exactly 98; the tried-and-true bracket pool format won't be facing complete anarchy in 2010. There are some changes here, though, and how fans decide to incorporate them will be a major factor in whether the marginal NCAA tournament expansion is viewed as a success.

Today, Rush The Court listed a couple of options for incorporating the new expansion format into bracket pools. As the RTC boys see it, there are, essentially, three solutions. Fans can:
  1. Make the play-in -- ahem, opening round -- games a required part of the bracket. This would move the deadline to submit brackets up to the wire on Tuesday, scratching off a major chunk of the time most people use to submit their brackets in the few days between the selection committee's announcement and Thursday's first-round games.
  2. Treat the play-in games like play-in games. Which is to say, ignore them altogether.
  3. Use a hybrid format. (Now where have you heard that before?) Bracket managers could award, say, half a point for players who submit their First Four picks and a completed bracket by an earlier Tuesday deadline. The rest of the field could ignore those games and merely pick the bracket as they always have, at the minimal risk of losing a few points in the larger calculus.

There are consequences of each. Pushing the full-bracket deadline up to Tuesday would limit the amount of time fans have to submit their brackets. This could lower the agonizing many analysts suffer through four days of bracket insanity, forcing pickers to trust their instincts and go with their gut rather than changing picks back and forth. ("Do I really want Baylor in the Final Four? I'M DYING HERE!!") Depending on your mental strength, this is either a positive or a negative.

Nor does it feel completely right to ignore the play-in games altogether. Two of the First Four games will feature teams many fans will want to watch, and watching those teams can only be enhanced by having them factor into your bracket. But two of those games will feature No. 16/17 teams from conferences like the MEAC and the SWAC, and attempting to predict those outcomes -- and have them affect the integrity of your bracket, too -- sounds less than ideal.

The hybrid solution is a good start, but here's how I'd improve it: Set two deadlines. If you join a bracket pool, you have one deadline for the opening round. Then, if you need it, you have another day and a half to fill out the rest of your bracket based on your opening round picks. The First Four are low seeds, so it's unlikely they'll factor into your Final Four anytime soon, but having the opportunity to look at the matchups in the No. 4-No. 13 games for potential upsets seems only fair. Everyone likes to nail the first round.

What about scoring? Bracket pools already use a system that awards more points for correct picks as the tournament goes on. The opening round should be no different. Make each game worth a half a point. The opening-round shouldn't cripple your bracket in any meaningful way. But since it's here, we might as well include it, right? More fun that way.

Given the way bracket pools are run now -- on the Interwebs -- the rules will have a lot to do with what major sites like this one end up choosing as default options. The two-deadline format isn't the least complex, so maybe it won't catch on quite as easily. But it totally should.
OK, not everyone. Some folks don't seem to mind. I'm one of them. Sure, expansion was silly, and no solution, no matter how reasonable or politically satisfactory, was ever going to be as good as just leaving the tournament the way it was. But since that was never going to happen, sometimes you have to take life's lemons and paint them gold. Things could be worse.

Still, one of the perils of finding a solution that could make most people happy is running the risk of making everybody angry. The NCAA seems to have avoided that fate, but there are plenty of perturbed constituents out there. Potential at-large teams think it's unfair two No. 16 seeds get to automatically make the tournament's second round even though they're ranked lower than the at-larges. At-large schools from non-major conferences are worried that the NCAA will favor big programs with name recognition for the "First Four" marketing extravaganza. And the tiniest mid-majors, those fighting for No. 16 seeds, are faced with the prospect of getting stuck in play-in games year after year, which ruins the shiny, dreamy, we-could-do-this recruiting luster of the NCAA tournament altogether.

SI's Andy Glockner sums up this chorus of discontent in a column today. Plenty of people are whining about the expansion scenario, but perhaps the most interesting of Glocker's aggrieved parties is the SWAC. Yes, the SWAC.

The SWAC is consistently college basketball's worst conference; last year, it went 7-87 in non-league Division I play. Its teams play tons of guarantee games -- in which a major program pays a money-starved mid-major to come to town in November and receive a ritual beating -- and it's hard to stack up wins or improve your RPI when you're reliant on such games just to survive. If this keeps up as the tournament changes to a new format, the SWAC conference champion will almost certainly play in the No. 16-seed play-in games nearly every year.

And here's the really interesting thing: Maybe that's not so bad! From Glockner:
One interesting byproduct of the play-in game is that it counts as a full NCAA tournament game, which means a win adds to the conference's coffers. Arkansas-Pine Bluff's victory over Winthrop in last season's game netted each SWAC school an additional $22,000 (approximately) a year for each of the next six seasons. (Each NCAA tournament win share equals six years of payment.) Weirdly, part of the SWAC's rebuilding strategy could actually include trying to improve while staying in the play-in games to collect wins and more NCAA revenues, which could allow a decrease in guarantee games.

[SWAC commissioner Duer] Sharp didn't sound interested in that plan of attack, and he said not having a solo play -in game stage is a step back. "For us, our intent is to get out of it," he said. "Our intent is to improve our RPI so that we're not part of this. Until we do that? Yeah, it does hurt a bit. It was always better when you know you're the only game on and you have the national audience."

If you're the SWAC, sure, you want to be a part of the "real" NCAA tournament. You don't want to be marginalized into playing two days before the tournament really swings into gear. You want to be one of the big boys. You want to play on Thursday. Understandable.

But the play-in games still count financially, and if stacking up play-in wins means the SWAC can slowly phase out those ugly early-season guarantee games, maybe there are worse things in the world than another No. 16-seed play-in game, you know? Actually, that goes for any conference with teams in the play-in -- er, opening -- round: Yes, you'd like to be in the tourney proper. If you're a mid-major on the fringe, you shouldn't have lost that close game at home to the 15-17 team in your conference. If you're a major-conference at-large, you shouldn't have finished 9-7 in conference. And yet you're still getting paid, you're still on TV, and you're still competing, same as everyone else. Prove you belong. That simple.

Expansion isn't perfect. But if that's the final calculus, I'm cool with it.
Tuesday, when announcing the NCAA's decision to use a hybrid format for the NCAA tournament's expanded suite of play-in -- excuse me, "first round" -- games, outgoing selection committee chair Dan Guerrero wisely admitted that no matter what the NCAA did, it wouldn't please everybody. Not that it didn't try:
"You're not going to come up with the perfect model," outgoing committee chair Dan Guerrero said. "You're not going to come up with a model that is going to appease every constituency out there. But we felt that this model provided the opportunity to do something special for the tournament."

How did the NCAA do? After a day of reaction, most hoops media and fans seem to be, well, tenuously OK with the idea. A general consensus has formed: The idea isn't perfect, but if expansion has to happen, this is a creative, appealing way to do it. There are plenty of dissenters in the mix, too, people who find this whole hybrid nonsense a joke. Try as they might, the NCAA didn't please everybody. But considering the circumstances, it got pretty darn close.

Anyway, here's a roundup of some of the prevailing hoops opinion about the NCAA's new expansion format. As always, if you have links or posts you want me to see, hit me up on Twitter. Onward:
  • First, in case you missed them, here's a spate of reactions from our own team: Pat Forde says the hybrid format makes the best of a bad idea; Bracketologist Joe Lunardi approves; Dana O'Neil checks in with coaches, who seem to like the new format far more than the media do; and I cheerily wrote that I was pleasantly surprised by the expansion's end result.
  • Mike Miller is interested in the TruTV move, which he thinks could be brilliant: "The strangest move may be where the games will be broadcast: TruTV. Yes, TruTV, formerly known as Court TV, the place I turned to in college to solve my insomnia. I suppose that's one way to boost the tournament's 'reach' among average viewers, given that TruTV is in roughly 93 million households, while ESPN and ESPN2 are both in about 100 million. College hoops fans will seek out the 'First Four' games on a different network, while I doubt TruTV viewers would've changed to ESPN, which is where the play-in game has been shown the last few years. To recap: The Big Dance expands to 68 teams in 2011 and features four first-round games that will be shown on a non-sports network. Times do change."
  • SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean sums up the prevailing opinion well: "While I still feel expansion was a completely unnecessary innovation, a three-team jump was certainly the way to go, and this format, even though it smacks of trying to please everyone involved, should work well."
  • Rush the Court points out the problems with the all at-large format: "Putting the last eight at-large invitees in these games would have had its own problems, namely making higher seeded teams play one more game to win a championship than do the lowest seeds. Further, there would have been issues about how to seed these teams and where the winner of the games would be seeded. And then there’s the issue that these teams, entirely from either BCS conferences or mid-major conferences, would have the chance to earn extra money from potentially competing in another NCAA tournament game while the one-bid conference teams don’t get such a chance and instead have to settle for their one in a million (hyperbole alert) chance against a one or two seed."
  • John Gasaway is more negative than most, but he has his reasons: "I realize many pundits are fine with this today, but wait until they see it in action with actual team names inserted into these brackets. Inevitably a five-seed will lose to a 12 that emerged from a play-in game and we’ll hear all the usual talk about the 'advantage' and 'momentum' the 12 had from playing already. And as for talk of 10-seeds being in play-in games, mark me down as absolutely terrified. I’m already on the record as thinking that tournament seeding has far too little to do with reality. (And note that today’s decision only raises the stakes that will be riding on a team’s seed.) Now, if you’re talking about a team seeded as high as a 10, there’s a good chance that said team is way better than the selection committee could have realized. To require a team that good to win an extra game while every year the 64th-best team in the field is guaranteed a comparatively easy six-win path is antithetical to what’s made the NCAA tournament the best postseason spectacle in major American team sports. We’ve trusted the tournament’s outcomes precisely to the extent that the courts have been neutral, the brackets have been balanced, and the opportunities have been equal. Don’t get me wrong. A 68-team field with a funky hybrid play-in round is ten times better than a 96-team field. But today was a mistake and, worse, it was entirely avoidable."
  • Andy Glockner calls the NCAA's hedge "disappointing": "Now? We're left with the middle ground. The general public won't be interested in two of the First Four games, with the small-conference matchups likely to be buried in the afternoon on truTV. The bracket isn't significantly improved and the ongoing slippery slope of sacrifice of conference champs continues. This compromise also feels like a test case for a move to a 72-team event in which the eight weakest teams play for the 16-seeds and the last eight at-larges play for four spots. If that's where we're heading, they should have just done it to the small schools now. At least then they could start cashing in by beating each other in the tournament, rather than losing by 40 during the regular season in games that truly are shows about nothing."
  • CBS' Gary Parrish is just thankful he has a reason to watch on Tuesday night: "I wanted no expansion, but I thought the NCAA would expand to 96. So a 68-team field is fine with me because it's not as bad as it could've been. Likewise, I wanted the final eight at-large teams to play 'opening round' games, but I thought the NCAA would simply take the eight worst automatic qualifiers. So a compromise between the two -- the final four at-large teams and the worst four automatic qualifiers will compete in the 'opening round' games -- is not as bad as it could've been. So I'm not as mad as I could've been. In fact, I'm cool with it. Had this format been in place last season, we would've got something like UTEP vs. Mississippi State and Ole Miss. vs. Illinois on the Tuesday or Wednesday after Selection Sunday, and though those games aren't marquee in the traditional sense, they are much more intriguing than Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Winthrop. In other words, I'll watch. For the first time ever, I'll watch the NCAA tournament before Thursday."
  • Ballin' Is A Habit wonders if the new format hurts the office tournament pool: "Speaking of average fans, a huge reason why the NCAA Tournament is able to garner the money and attention it does is because everyone and their brother fills out a bracket. With this extra day of games -- of meaningful games -- occurring on a Tuesday, what does this do to the average office pool? Are people going to get organized, make their picks, get their money in, etc. in two days? Teams seeded 10th, 11th, and 12th are the most popular upset picks. What if two of those seeds aren't determined? If pool organizers decide the wait until after those games are played -- essentially giving everyone a freebie pick on those games -- will anyone actually want to watch them? How many people are truly going to care about Utah State playing NC State without a pick on the line?"
  • Yahoo! Sports' Matt Norlander has his share of concerns, but he does like that the big boys are now accountable: "Accountability for the major-conference teams: The big boys have to shut up if they don't win. Sure, we're going to have a school or two bicker if they miss the CHANCE to play in the play-in, but there's no whining to be done after the play-in has been completed. Win to get into the main field. [...] We will now know the final teams chosen in the field. A true 'final four' of at-larges. Only thing is, they'll be slated according to RPI."
  • Mike DeCourcy says the NCAA is doing so well making big decisions we should put them in charge of goal-line technology in soccer: "Overall, the committee's work hints at the touch of a legislative genius — the sort of person who conceives workable ideas that can widely be agreed upon as solid compromises. The format the tournament will use was not among those originally identified by Guerrero as possible solutions. He declined to identify who came up with this approach, though. He said it developed from 'a natural evolution' in the discussion. It's not as though the committee members have found a way to make calorie-free ice cream cones, but what they've conceived causes the least disruption to the fewest amount of people — and gives Turner something decent to put on TV. [...] The committee has had a heck of a year in 2010. What would make 2011 even better? Well, it'd be awesome if they pick a deserving field, seed it properly — and aren't asked to do any more work on tournament expansion."
The NCAA tournament has expanded before. After all, the idea of a 64-team tournament didn't spring forth from some random bit of human genius -- it took time, and several iterations of the NCAA tournament before the current 65-team field we all know and love came to be.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton interviewed Wayne Duke -- the first staffer hired when the NCAA came into being in 1952 and a longtime member of the selection committee -- to see how the NCAA lifer felt about the latest expansion to 68 teams. Not only was Duke happy about it, he also shared some of the history of past expansion. Turns out, there were a fair share of naysayers in early expansion efforts, too:
To gradually expand the tournament in the past sparked little opposition. Not that those expansions were universally applauded. Duke recalled UCLA Coach John Wooden and Athletic Director J.D. Morgan opposing expansion in the 1970s, perhaps because a larger field would make it more difficult for the Bruins — or any dynasty — to win championships.

As a committee member (and commissioner of the Big Eight and later the Big Ten conferences), Duke also heard the argument that expanding the tournament would weaken the field. Duke disagreed and lobbied to extend automatic qualifying bids to more conferences. He recalled the year the Ohio Valley Conference learned it would have a team in every NCAA Tournament.

When the NCAA started noodling the idea of 96 teams, outrage ensued. As a response to that outrage, the pro-expansion folks (which was pretty much just the people at the NCAA proposing expansion and the coaches who thought expansion would make their lives easier) often referenced this history -- that the tournament wasn't static, that it had gotten bigger before, that 96 teams was the inevitable next step in an ever-evolving competition.

So it's probably worth pointing out a couple of things here. For one, NCAA tournament expansion was unpopular back in the day, but Duke makes clear that it wasn't nearly as unpopular as the 96-team idea. Second of all, we're at a point now where we have, for better or worse, a tournament that makes perfect sense. It's entertaining. It's mathematically sound. It's fair. Past tournaments expanded for good reason -- they moved alongside the explosion in growth in the sport. For the most part, that growth has stalled, and any college basketball fan can look at the current climate and see that 96 teams is at least 20 more than the current field of 347 teams need to settle a champion. Adding to it wasn't the matter of natural evolution. It was just a bad idea.

So, yes, NCAA tournament expansion was always unpopular. The difference is our modern distaste for expansion is far less rooted in tradition. In 2010, that unpopularity was warranted.

(HT: Beyond The Arc)
On Thursday, the NCAA's board of directors codified what the men's basketball committee recommended last week: A new, expanded 68-team tournament. Yay! The tournament still won't be 96 teams, and that's the important thing here. At this point, any other changes to the tournament's format are pure gravy.

But what exactly will those changes be? We know one thing for sure -- the NCAA will be adding a play-in game to each of the four NCAA tournament regions, similar to the current play-in game that has two teams play in Dayton, Ohio, for the chance to play a No. 1 overall seed on the first Friday of the tournament.

Some hoped these play-in games would be slightly revolutionary in their creation. The hope was that the last eight at-large teams allowed in the tournament would square off for the right to be the No. 12 seed. That would seem to be a win-win for fans and the tournament -- the play-in round would include marquee, big-name teams with large fan bases that had to fight to get in the NCAA tournament.

If this format had been used in the 2009-10 tournament, teams like Illinois and Virginia Tech and Florida would have been playing pretty thrilling play-in games for the chance to square off against the No. 5 seeds in their various brackets. This would have been a good time.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem very likely. There are a whole range of issues with that plan, not least of which is the fact that it doesn't exactly seem fair to make a No. 12 seed play a game more than a No. 13, No. 14, No. 15 or No. 16. Instead, as SB Nation's Matt O'Brien argues, the NCAA is more likely to create an added play-in game for the No. 1 seed's opponent. The result would be four No. 16/No. 17 play-in games that look much like this year's Arkansas Pine-Bluff vs. Winthrop matchup.

That might not sound very thrilling. That's because it won't be. But it does have implications for the rest of the bracket. The NCAA isn't going to expand to 68 teams and not add teams that will drive ratings for its partners. Going to 68 teams doesn't mean four more sacrificial No. 16-seed mid-majors. It means pushing those mid-majors down the bracket and creating room for the last eight at-larges.

In other words -- brace yourself, because here come the eye-glazing numbers -- 2010's No. 13 seed becomes 2011's No. 14. 2010's No. 14 seed becomes 2011's No. 15. 2010's No. 15 seed becomes 2011's No. 16. You get the point. No 16th-seeded team has ever beaten a No. 1, but a few No. 15 seeds have toppled their No. 2-seeded opponents in the past. No. 3 seeds fall to No. 14 seeds all the time -- see this year's Ohio win over No. 3-seeded Georgetown. Traditionally, upsets get more and more common as you go down the bracket, and everyone knows how common 12-over-5 occurrences are.

The final effect is to push more and more capable teams into lower and lower seeds. This means, quite simply, more upsets.

In the service of equality, it would be nice to see more mid-major teams get automatic entries into the tourney. Big-name at-large teams like Illinois have every chance, every advantage, to prove themselves worthy of the NCAA tournament throughout the season, and when they don't, it's hard to feel very sorry for them. It'd be nice if three more small schools got chances at playing Cinderella.

That won't happen in the real world, though. In the real world, those at-larges will be shoveled into the bracket in much the same way as they currently are. But this isn't all bad. The reshuffling of the bracket will decrease the margin between the teen seeds and the teams in the low single-digits. Again, that means more upsets. And more upsets means more entertainment.

NCAA tournament expansion might be a good thing. Who knew?
Today brought some fantastic news: Contrary to popular belief, the NCAA tournament isn't expanding to 96 teams. I know, right? Deep breaths. Sigh of relief. All that and more. Considering the widespread consensus that the NCAA's decision to opt out of its current contract with CBS and pursue a richer deal was pursuant on its new network having more NCAA tournament games to show, this news wasn't just pleasant. It was also surprising. In this case, who doesn't love a good surprise?

Based on the NCAA's news release and its subsequent teleconference with the media Thursday afternoon, we now know more about the new-look NCAA tournament than we did even 24 hours ago: How many teams it will have, where the games will be shown, and what direction the broadcasts will take in the future. There is also much we don't know, including just how impermanent the NCAA's 68-team decision will be. So let's recap: Below is a list of things we know and don't know about NCAA tournament expansion, a one-stop primer for today's big news. Onward.

What we know

How many teams will the NCAA tournament have in 2011? This is easy: 68. Or, to be fair, the NCAA tournament will almost certainly have 68 teams in 2011. Right now, that number comes from one thing: The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee's unanimous recommendation to the NCAA board of directors that the tournament expand to 68 teams. The board of directors still has to approve that measure at its meeting on April 29.

That approval is a formality at this point. The board of directors will almost certainly approve that recommendation. It would be a major plot twist if the board rejected it. The 68-team number is non-binding -- and in their new broadcast rights contract, the NCAA holds full discretion over whether the tournament would expand -- but for now, it appears 68 is our number. That barely qualifies as expansion, so those worried that a 96-team tournament would be on our doorstep soon can rest easy. For now.

Where will we be watching? CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV. Of course, the main reason the NCAA investigated expansion in the first place is to drive up the price of its new rights contract. The bidders came down to ESPN and a joint CBS-Turner group, which won out in the end.

How does this network split work? It's not quite as cut-and-dry as, say, ESPN and CBS' joint ownership of the rights to the Masters, but it's close. The first and second rounds of the tournament will be split between the four networks. CBS and Turner will split the Sweet 16.

Here's where it gets a little tricky: Through 2015, the Elite Eight and Final Four will be the sole province of CBS. Beginning in 2016, the Elite Eight and Final Four will be split between Turner and CBS. The two networks will trade years for the national title game -- CBS will have it one year, TBS the next. This deal lasts until 2024. Plan your viewing accordingly.

How much money is the NCAA making? Quite a bit: $10.8 billion over 14 years. That's about $776 million a year, or on average around $200 million per annum more than the NCAA was making in its old deal, an 11-year contract for $6 billion with CBS. Some questioned whether a new deal would net more than the NCAA stood to gain from the last three years of its current deal with CBS -- the last three years of its contract were three of the richest -- given the current economic climate and declining tournament ratings over the last decade. That squeamishness proved a little conservative. The NCAA ended up eclipsing that number, and easily so.

What we don't know

How many teams will the NCAA tournament have in, say, 2016? Ah, the $11 billion question. NCAA interim president Jim Isch and senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen refused to say whether the NCAA tournament would stick with this 68-team format in the years after 2011. When asked, Isch would merely say the 68-team recommendation was "for now." The NCAA has sole control over whether the tournament will expand in the future or not.

This raises the possibility that the NCAA tournament will be expanding again at some point. Cynics might even say the NCAA is softening its expansion blow in the face of widespread criticism, and they could have a point. By 2016 (the year itself isn't important, but just for argument's sake), the NCAA could have decided that a 96-team tournament is in the best interest of its member institutions and student-athletes, passing a similar recommendation and blowing the tournament out into the unwieldy mess you see here. It's possible.

But perhaps the most important part of today's news is that the NCAA managed to score a very rich deal without immediately expanding the tournament to 96 teams, and according to the heads of CBS and Turner, that deal isn't contingent on having 96 teams -- in 2011 or afterward. Clearly, 96 teams isn't a deal-breaker. If this format works well, and the NCAA has no financial incentive to expand, will it still expand? That seems possible too, but it also seems unlikely. Messing with a good thing makes sense when there are billions of dollars at stake. It makes zero sense when there aren't.

How does 68 teams work? This is one detail the NCAA will finalize after the 68-team recommendation is finalized, so we won't know for at least a few weeks. The simplest method would see the NCAA create four more play-in games, similar to the current play-in game, involving non-BCS schools playing for a chance to square off against the No. 1 seed in each region. Simple doesn't always mean ideal, though, and it would figure that the NCAA and its partners at CBS and Turner would prefer that the pool of expanded teams include big schools like Illinois, one of this year's last four out. One possibility is that the eight final at-large inclusions play four play-in games for the four No. 12 seeds. It's a bit of a non-traditional change, but compared to a 96-team tournament, it's decidedly small potatoes.

Will Gus Johnson call a game with Conan O'Brien? Now that CBS and Turner have united to bring us a college basketball tournament that we can actually recognize and enjoy, only one thing could make this news better: Coco and Gus on a first-round 4 vs. 13 call. Start your Internet campaigns now.

68 teams? 68 teams!

April, 22, 2010
Forget what I just wrote, and forget your overwhelming sense of doom: The NCAA tournament is expanding in 2011, but only to 68 teams.

That's the upshot of this just-posted news release from the NCAA. As news broke this morning that CBS and Turner Sports had signed a new deal for the rights to an expanded NCAA tournament, the natural assumption was that the tournament would be expanding to the ever-dreaded 96-team format. Why bring on two networks if not to handle 16 extra tournament games, right? Actually, not so much:
Late Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee unanimously passed a recommendation to the Division I Board of Directors to increase tournament field size to 68 teams beginning with the 2011 Championship. The recommendation will be reviewed by the Division I Board of Directors at its April 29 meeting.

In other words, 96 teams won't be in a 2011 NCAA tournament. That's not to say the tournament won't eventually expand -- if the money and willingness on the part of CBS and Turner is there, the NCAA could pass a similar recommendation for greater expansion in the years to come. But for now, and for at least one more year, 96 teams is not a reality. We thought wrong.

Overwhelming sense of doom? More like overwhelming sense of relief. For those opposed to an unwieldy 96-team postseason morass, this officially qualifies as fantastic news.

Today's big news is going to be a little bit gloomy, because guess what? All your worst fears about the NCAA tournament are true.

A new tournament? Yep. Immediate overhaul beginning in 2010-11? Yes. 96 teams? Bet on it.

According to USA Today, CBS and Turner Sports have reached a "14-year, multibillion dollar agreement" with the NCAA for the rights to an expanding NCAA tournament, citing "multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations." USA Today says the expansion could be to anywhere from 68 to 96 teams, but Turner's inclusion on the deal means the tournament is almost definitely going to be expanded to 96, as there is little reason for CBS to include a cable network in its new deal with the NCAA if the tournament was staying similar to its current format. Think about it: 68 teams hardly requires a two-pronged media blitz on cable and network television. But 96 does. (That said, the ability to show multiple games at the same time on the first weekend of the tournament to those without DirecTV's pay-per-view tournament package would be a nice addition to a regular, sanely sized tournament. Not that it's going to matter.)

Confirmation and an announcement are still necessary here, so let's not freak out too much. Maybe it's just a new contract, and maybe it doesn't necessarily reach into 96-team territory. The NCAA has scheduled a teleconference for 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss its new "multimedia rights agreement," so we'll have more answers then. But combined with NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen's disastrous and revealing news conference at the Final Four, this report portends exactly what those who hate the idea of an expanded NCAA tournament -- which is, like, everybody -- feared. The four horsemen of the expansion apocalypse have arrived, and the NCAA tournament will never be the same.
After Gordon Hayward's last-second heave, but before I left for a quick vacation in the sandy sun-soaked oasis that is Scottsdale, Ariz.,* I wrote that the No. 1 storyline worth following this offseason was NCAA tournament expansion -- whether the tournament would expand, how it would do so, and when. It now appears likely that storyline is going to come and go before this offseason even starts.

According to the Sports Business Journal (via The Dagger), NCAA interim president Jim Isch is going to reveal his decision -- which pretty much everyone in the world expects to be in favor of a 96-team tournament format -- as soon as the NCAA convenes an executive committee meeting on April 29. The original deadline most people had in their heads was July 31, which is when the NCAA's current opt-out window closes; that deadline now looks merely ceremonial.

That's not the only interesting bit from the SBJ's report, though. There's also the little matter of whether the NCAA will divide the tournament between CBS and Turner Sports if ESPN doesn't win the rights all on its lonesome. To wit:
CBS is contractually obligated to share its business results with the NCAA each year, and the network has showed that it didn’t turn a profit on the tournament this year, sources said. “It’s pretty clear that an over-the-air network can’t afford this event by itself,” said one executive with knowledge of the discussions.

By teaming with Turner, CBS would have a partner that would help pay that rights fee, which isn’t expected to grow much beyond the current deal. If the NCAA goes that route, the Final Four would alternate from over-the-air to cable each year.

This is the new face of the NCAA tournament. 96 teams. Two new networks. An unrecognizable morass grown solely for the sake of money. A perfectly good thing ruined. And all by April 29. Who said the NCAA was a bumbling bureaucratic mess? This expansion thing is being carried out with Spartan efficiency.

*Back now. It feels good. No college basketball for six months? Less so. Let's settle in, shall we?
Think about all the distractions and drags on your entertainment time that have been invented or proliferated since 2005. The iPhone. The rise of satellite and digital TV. Netbooks. XBox 360. Nintendo Wii. Playstation 3. Blu-Ray. 3-D. The Internet's continual expansion into an all-encompassing social media cloud: Twitter, Facebook and the rest. We don't have any more hours in the day than we did in 2005; what we do have is infinite ways to spend those hours.

Which is part of the reason television ratings in general, and major sports event ratings, are trending downward. This is how it works: When you have 1,000 channels to choose from, fewer people are going to watch the major events cable networks have been thriving on for years. They have other choices. But the NCAA should be happy with the latest piece of news about the 2010 Final Four: For once, ratings didn't trend downward. Instead, the Final Four drew its highest rating since 2005, a 9.7 overnight rating and 19 share, up eight percent over last year's 9.0 rating and 18 share.

If this were, say, 1993, this piece of information wouldn't be all that remarkable. In 2010, though, it bucks the accepted wisdom that NCAA tournament ratings -- or NBA ratings, BCS ratings or whatever -- are forever destined to decrease. These ratings are still not great, sure. But they are positive.

The irony here is that the NCAA tournament has notched its highest rating since 2005 in a year when the organization is strongly leaning toward expanding the NCAA tournament. Expansion would draw more money, which would alleviate the potential lack of ad revenue that lower and lower future ratings would conceivably draw. If the business value of the 65-team tournament is dropping, then leverage your assets and give a TV network more games, right?

This is a memo to the NCAA, though, that tourney ratings aren't necessarily destined to drop forever. People still want to watch high-quality college basketball. Emphasis on high quality.
INDIANAPOLIS -- A day after the NCAA made a hash of its first major discussion of the possibility of an expanded tournament field, a consensus has solidified: The NCAA wants more money. If that means sacrificing the glorious, uber-popular current tournament format, fine. If that means making students miss an extra week of school, well, OK. The NCAA sees a money tree waiting to be picked, and little sad concerns like "not doing something your fans almost universally detest" and "not seeming hypocritical about 'student-athletes'" aren't going to be enough to derail a value-added business deal.

But there's actually an argument -- made most eloquently this morning by the The Trentonian's Ben Doody -- that expanding the tournament could be an objectively bad business move. If expanding the tournament decreases the intrigue of the first round, ratings could plummet; meanwhile, the regular season and mid-major conference tournaments could become less important, and thus less profitable:

College basketball’s regular season is already under siege from critics for having little significance. If a team like North Carolina can have its most disappointing season in decades and STILL make the NCAA tournament, critics will rightly argue that at least as it pertains to successful teams from power conferences, what goes on between November and February will be a string of exhibition games.

It’s easy to envision a scenario in which regular-season TV ratings go down and conferences are eventually forced to settle for less lucrative contracts as a result. Then there are conference tournaments. Those held by the power conferences already have little meaning, but those held by mid-majors have both meaning and financial value. A league like the MAAC, for instance makes a comparative killing on its tournament.

There you go, NCAA. It's a long term business-related argument against expanding the NCAA tournament. It probably won't be enough for you to turn down the extra cash (which, it should be mentioned, doesn't go into some secret NCAA coffer; much of it goes to member institutions, which is a generally noble goal) but hey, at least give it some thought.

In the end, whether or not expansion is eventually seen as a success will depend on one major outcome: Whether people watch the new first-round games. And I don't mean you, the college basketball sports blog reader, or me, the college basketball sports blogger. I mean the casual fan: The guy who fills out a few brackets every year but doesn't really freak out about it. The group that sneaks out of the cube farm and heads down to the local bar at lunchtime on Thursday because it looks like Villanova is going to get upset by a No. 15-seed. Dolores, the woman who keeps photos of her cats on her desk. Will those people watch? Or will the NIT-level play on hand -- and the less immediately shocking nature of potential first-round upsets -- turn them away, souring them on the tournament in general? Whether we eventually view expansion as a disaster (from both a financial and entertainment standpoint) or as another worthy step in the tournament's long evolution will depend entirely on this new first round.

I have my doubts. You?