The NCAA wants to ruin its own basketball tournament

This is a little late…okay, more than a little.  It’s the holiday season, after all.  I was busy.

You may have heard that the NCAA is considering expanding the D-1 hoops tourney to 96 teams.  The particulars:

[The NCAA] is gauging the feasibility of moving the tournament from broadcast to cable…as it decides whether to exercise an escape clause in its 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS, the NCAA’s longtime partner…

…the NCAA has the ability to opt out [of the deal] at the close of the 2010 Final Four. One source said this is just the beginning of a process that will conclude in summer  2010, at the earliest…

…the NCAA is not committed to making any changes. It also is talking with TV networks about whether they are interested in the tournament as is. The NCAA’s current deal with CBS is heavily backloaded. More than a third of the total value — $2.13 billion — is due to the NCAA in the final three years.

But the potential expansion of the NCAA tournament has support in collegiate circles, particularly from college basketball coaches. The idea talked about with TV networks would likely take it from its current field of 65 teams to 96 teams and add another week to the competition, with the top 32 teams receiving byes. The move has been characterized as folding the NIT into the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA clearly expects that the added week of games would significantly increase the tournament’s rights fee.

If you’re wondering why college basketball coaches favor expanding the tournament, it’s about job security, primarily for major college coaches.  Now, you might think that coaches who make six figures per annum (or more) might deserve being under a bit of pressure for that kind of dough (and all the other perks that go with the job).  The coaches, though, have a different idea.

Those poor major college coaches do have it rough.  There are 72 schools in the six BCS conferences.  Of those 72, only 36 made the NCAA tournament last season.  Just 50%.  Why, there wasn’t room for 16-14 Georgetown, or 18-14 Virginia Tech, or 17-15 Washington State!  Expanding the field to 96 would surely correct those injustices.

The writer of this article in The Wall Street Journal favors expansion.  As he puts it:

Expansion would, in no particular order, give more quality teams a chance to prove themselves and fix the shamefully low percentage of bids given to lesser-known “mid-major” teams. It might also create enough of a supply of games to allow a portion of the tournament to be shown on cable (at the moment, fans can’t see every game in its entirety because CBS—the rights holder—doesn’t broadcast every game nationally).

Most important of all, adding an extra round or stage to the tournament would mean an extra helping of what fans love most about the event: the early rounds, the unpredictable festival of games that go on all day and create wild excitement all across the country.

Give more quality teams a chance to prove themselves?  Isn’t that what the regular season is supposed to be about?

The problem with his argument about expansion aiding mid-major teams is in his next sentence.  The object of this exercise is for the NCAA to extract as much money as it can from ESPN and/or CBS (or maybe Fox; after all, Chris Rose needs work).  Let’s get serious here — ESPN isn’t going to give the NCAA a zillion dollars to televise first-round matchups between Illinois State-Niagara, or Duquesne-Tulsa.

His basic idea (which mirrors Coach K’s thoughts in the earlier link) is that a 96-team field would envelop and replace the NIT, which is now owned by the NCAA and doesn’t make nearly enough money to satisfy that organization.  As a practical matter, though, it would not and could not.

For one thing, three of the teams in last season’s NIT (Jacksonville, UT-Martin, and Weber State) were regular season champions of smaller conferences that would not be given at-large bids to an expanded tournament.  Several other schools invited to the NIT would also be questionable candidates for NCAA at-large bids, including several of the C-USA squads and Duquesne, which was only 9-7 in Atlantic 10 play.

If you expanded the field to 96, last season at least 51 of the 72 BCS schools would have made the field, and as a practical matter probably five or six more would have also (Vanderbilt for UT-Martin, Seton Hall for Jacksonville, etc.).  That would mean that over 75% of all major conference schools would have received bids last season.

Do we really need that many of those power league teams in the tournament?  Georgetown (to name just one example) lost 12 league games in the Big East (counting its first-round conference tourney loss to St. John’s).  I would suggest that the Hoyas conclusively proved that they had no business playing in the NCAAs.

Another thing is that the near-monopolization by the major conference outfits would only get worse, as once the tournament expands, you can expect a different approach to scheduling in the power leagues.  Schools would know that just approaching .500 in league play would be enough to get a bid as long as the overall record was a winning one.

It wouldn’t be a total wipeout of interesting non-conference games (ESPN has to televise something in November and December, after all).  It would, however, resemble what we’re starting to see in FBS football, which is a paucity of quality non-conference games.

Once that scheduling strategy came to the fore, you would start to see even more of the major conference schools grab at-large bids, to the point where the percentage of at-large bids in a 96-team field would be the same as it is now for the 65-team field.  Last season that number was 88%.

If that percentage held for a 96-team event, then 63 of the 72 BCS teams would get in the NCAAs.  Basically, just the one or two worst teams in each of the six BCS leagues would be left out.  Every BCS school would fully expect to make the tournament every season (well, maybe not DePaul).

Another thing that would happen is that the major conference tournaments would be completely devalued.  I suppose they might affect seeding, but that’s about it.  Even a game on opening day in the ACC or Big XII, for instance, between an 8 and 9 seed wouldn’t matter much.

I am surprised that people like Doug Elgin (MVC commissioner and now a proponent of expansion) are not concerned about how this thing might ultimately evolve.  If the idea is that maybe the mid-major leagues might get a few extra at-large bids, sure they might — but they will find that eventually their place in the tournament as a whole will be further marginalized.

Of course, the mid-majors will still be in better shape than the low-majors, who will be even less of a factor in an expanded field.  For example, 90% of the time the Southern Conference will only have one team in the tournament, the automatic qualifier.  The league has never had more than one team in the field in its history, and hasn’t had a school receive an at-large bid since 1950 (North Carolina State).

There have only been a tiny handful of SoCon schools over the years left out of the 64-team bracket that might have snagged an at-large bid in a 96-team tourney.  Davidson may have received one last season, and the Wildcats might have had a chance in 1996, too.  From a small-school perspective, does that justify the diluting of the tournament?  No.

Besides, the event is already open to nearly every school in Division I.  As pointed out in this article from last season, only 47 of the 344 schools competing in Division I did not have a chance to advance to the NCAAs from conference tournaments (and several of those were schools like Presbyterian, ineligible for the big tourney because they were transitioning to Division I).

Everyone has a shot — The Citadel, William & Mary, St. Francis of New York, Army, Northwestern — everybody.

I think an expansion to the tournament would ruin the event, which is almost perfect as it now stands.  The only true flaw in the current bracket is the dreadful play-in game; the tourney would be better served to have 64 teams instead of 65, and do so by eliminating one at-large berth.

If you expanded to 96 (and then 128, which I suspect would become inevitable), just making the tourney would lose a great deal of its value.  I would like very much someday to see people filling out a bracket with The Citadel on it, even if those people weren’t picking the Bulldogs (which would be a mistake — if The Citadel ever makes the field, I guarantee we’re taking out a high seed in the first round).

However, with 96 teams what would probably happen is that all the major bracket contests you see would start after the first weekend cull from 96 to 64.  It’s like having 32 play-in games instead of one.

I’m not arguing against expanding the field just because of bracket pools.  I’m arguing against it because it is (almost) perfect the way it is now, and expanding it would signicantly lessen its charm, particularly with regards to the schools that don’t see their name in lights all that often.

I have no doubt the NCAA will decide to expand…

One Response

  1. Yep, and it’s already begun…64 is the perfect amount of teams, they should go back to that. That would still give you 33 at-large bids, is that really not enough???

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