Expansion to 68 is fine, but not 96

March, 15, 2010
The drumbeat for a 96-team tournament sounds ominous.

Whether the NCAA tournament will be on CBS or with a new partner like Turner in 2011 is unknown. The television contract will play its way out in the next few months, and then the NCAA will decide to either finish the final three years of its deal with its longtime broadcast partner or go ahead and do a long-term contract with someone else, which could include ESPN/ABC.

But let's pause and consider what 96 teams would mean: the dilution of the NCAA tournament. You can say all you want that it's only one more game. But the drama of championship week -- with teams trying to play their way in, like Mississippi State attempted to do Sunday -- would be gone. The reason that Bulldogs game against Kentucky was so intense had to do with the Bulldogs' desperately need of a win to get a bid. The intensity of the fans wouldn't have been the same. Not a chance.

That's why the most prudent decision for the NCAA membership and the selection committee is to go to 68 teams. Remember, the NCAA hierarchy has the option to investigate expansion and see what is available with possible television suitors. The NCAA did ask each of the networks to detail what they would do with possible expansion. There were no rules that it had to be 96. It could have been to keep it the same, or to do something incrementally to 68, 72 or even go to an extreme and extend to 128. ESPN is not commenting on expansion.

But the NCAA must seriously consider 68 teams. I know the power six conferences might be against a scenario that doesn't extend the number of at-large bids beyond 37. But if the NCAA wants to maximize its television dollars in an incremental fashion, go to 68 and have four play-in games among bubble teams.

I'm not an expert on analyzing television ratings, but I can tell you that college basketball fans would be more intrigued with a full opening-round on Tuesday night.

If you were to add the top three teams from the NIT -- the only teams that had a legitimate gripe on Sunday night -- and had them play their way in with one more game, they would gladly fly to Dayton or Indianapolis or wherever these opening-round games would be.

Take Illinois, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State and see right now if they'd like to play Tuesday night with Utah State, which had to be one of the last teams in the field as a No. 12 at-large team. That sets up two opening-round games for the final 12 seeds. There should be no complaining if you had a chance to play your way into the field.

Do you mean to tell me that there wouldn't be more interest in seeing that doubleheader than the opening-round game of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop? Of course there would be more intensity in playing those two games than simply the one opening-round game. I don't want to hear that those few teams would have to win seven games, not six, to win the national championship. Once again, these coaches would gladly attempt to win seven, rather than play in the NIT.

Looking at the NIT field, do you seriously believe that we should reward mediocrity and include all of these teams? Could you extend it beyond 68 and move it to a formula that could take it to 72? Sure, you could figure out how to make it work if you were to add Cincinnati, Rhode Island, UAB and Seton Hall, with competition for these spots with Memphis, Ole Miss and Arizona State.

But that's where it stops.

Seriously, it doesn't extend beyond those teams. No one else beyond this group had a single worthy argument. If the NCAA were to extend beyond 72, or really 68, it would be rewarding mediocrity. Do we celebrate C students in life? Is that what we aspire to? The bowl system does that to some degree, welcoming 6-6 teams into the postseason. That doesn't work for me. You're celebrating average performance, not excellence.

Those in favor of 96 see the dollars and assume that once it's part of the regular vernacular no one will complain. I disagree. The drama will be zapped out of the final few weeks of the season. There will be no need for much discussion of the selection committee if you were to extend to 96. You could simply have a cutoff point and start to seed the field.

Meanwhile, due to scheduling conflicts, the top-seeded Illini are playing at America East conference champion Stony Brook in the opening round of the NIT. Yuck.

Let's take this slow. The expansion of the field should be incremental and not go to 96. Go to 68 and see how it works.

Don't make the automatic qualifiers play four opening-round games for the 16 seeds, either. Those teams won conference tournaments and most of the time also won regular-season championships. As long as there are 347 teams in Division I, then those AQ schools will have a voice. If you don't think so, then they should start to cut down Division I.

I hope common sense prevails.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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