As the incoming NCAA tournament committee chairman, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith will either preside over another traditional NCAA tournament or be forced to oversee the most dramatic change the event has ever seen.
He says he has no idea whether the tournament will expand to 96 teams in 2011. But he knows what he's for: keeping it the same or making a slight alteration.
But he doesn't have a choice, since the decision will likely come down to NCAA interim president Jim Isch, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen and the school presidents' NCAA board of directors. All of this could be decided at the board's meeting April 29 or when the NCAA has to decide whether to opt out of the final three years of its CBS television contract (July 31 deadline).
Smith takes over as chairman in September. The last meeting of the current selection committee is in June, when UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero will finish his term.
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOhio State AD Gene Smith will take over as chairman of the tourney committee in September.
"I don't have a real perspective of what 96 would look like," Smith said. "I really don't, and I think most athletic directors and basketball people would say they would prefer it go to 68."
The 68-team proposal would mean four opening-round games, likely for the four 16-seeds. That would open up three more at-large spots to increase the pool of at-large teams to 37, which would satisfy a number of the power-six conference teams that believe they get squeezed out each season. Another proposal is to go to 80, although no details have been given. The most discussed is the 96-team event, about which Shaheen went into great detail during a news conference before the Final Four two weeks ago in Indianapolis.
"The responsibility we have with the association is to deal with whatever we have and make it work," Smith said. "But the majority would like to see it go from 65 to 68. But I'm not sure that's realistic."
Smith has been at various levels of Division I -- he has worked at Eastern Michigan, Iowa State and Arizona State and is now at the massive athletic department of the Ohio State University. Being at Ohio State makes him one of the most powerful athletic directors in the country. Taking over the selection committee at this point in the growth of the NCAA tournament puts him in an even more influential position.
Coincidentally, the possible expansion of the NCAA tournament is occurring while the Big Ten is investigating expanding from 11 to possibly 12 or 14 or 16 teams, with Missouri, Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame as the likeliest additions.
Smith said he loved the recently concluded tournament, the storylines with Northern Iowa, Butler's run and the overall "different flavor. I really enjoyed it."
"I'm a traditionalist, and I like the configuration we're in now," Smith said. "That's not to say there aren't some attractive elements to 96. I do see the excitement of doing something different."
If 96 were to occur, the most dramatic effect would be on the conference tournaments and their importance. That's why Smith is taking a college football approach to this matter. Smith is on board with what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested at the Final Four: There has to be an automatic qualifier for the regular-season champ. If that happens -- along with maintaining the current automatic bid for the tourney champs -- all conferences, from the Big Sky to the Big East, would have the chance to get at least two automatic berths.
But Smith said college football's regular season is important because it determines the bowls. To mimic that and make college basketball's regular season just as important, there must be an importance put on being the conference regular-season champ.
"It would spark change, and it might change the whole landscape of the college basketball regular season," Smith said. "People attack the BCS, but they forget the planning principles of how exciting the regular season is."
This past season, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue tied for the Big Ten regular-season title. The Big Ten, like every other power-six conference except the Pac-10, plays an unbalanced schedule. So through tiebreakers, OSU earned the No. 1 seed for the league tournament. But Smith said the Big Ten and other conferences would have to look at tiebreakers and how they schedule if the regular-season champ gets the automatic berth.
If the tournament expands, there will also have to be a summit to discuss how to bracket 96 with new guiding principles.
"It's all in Jim Isch's hands, and I have a lot of faith in Jim and Greg and others to do their due diligence," Smith said. "Jim Isch also has the authority to have everything stay the same."
Smith said the committee would have a say on the expansion issue, but not necessarily on whether to opt out of the television deal.
He also said there was no real discussion on 68 (and none on 80), although that's where he'd like to see the decision.
"Now that the tournament is over, Dan and I joked about that if 80 or 96 becomes a reality, that it will hit me," Smith said. "And if it does, then at that time I will provide the leadership to get through it. It's pretty interesting to be in limbo. That's what it is -- limbo."