Thursday, February 4, 2010

When it comes to a 96-team NCAA Tournament, don’t ask why—ask how

The NCAA might want you to believe a 96-team NCAA Tournament will have as many spots for at-large mid-majors as the Astrodome had seats, but don't be fooled, the target will be as small as ever.

Like so many college basketball fans, I’m sitting here asking “Why?” as the NCAA apparently moves closer to expanding the Division I tournament to 96 teams. But while many of our peers are wondering why this is happening—why the NCAA is messing with perfection—I’m looking at it like this: Much like receiving a summons for jury duty, it was inevitable and probably long overdue. So why bother complaining once it happens?

Other than the addition of a play-in game in 2001, the NCAA hasn’t expanded the field since 1985, the longest such drought in the history of the event. It began as an eight-team tournament in 1939 and expanded to 16 in 1951, 32 in 1975, 40 in 1979, 48 in 1980 and 53 in 1983.

But Division I membership has dramatically increased—from 305 schools in 1985 to 347 this year—meaning the percentage of schools participating in the tournament has slipped from 21 to 18.7. Even adding in the 32 NIT teams, just 28 percent of Division I schools will qualify for traditional postseason play in 2010, down from 31.4 percent in 1985.

The number of college football bowl games since 1985, meanwhile, has more than doubled—from 15 to 34—while the Division I-A membership has only increased from 111 to 120. Fifty-seven percent of I-A teams reached postseason play last year, up from 27 percent in 1985.

My favorite complaint of the potential expansion is that it’s going to ruin the tournament for the average fan by making it impossible to bet on and by diluting the first weekend of the event. Are you kidding me?

Choose a euphemism, any euphemism, and it applies to the NCAA Tournament and gamblers both casual and chronic. It’s their crack cocaine, their chocolate cake two weeks into a diet, their Pavlovian bell ringing and demanding a mouth-watering response. The tournament could expand to include every Division I team and the bracket as we know it could require a microscope to read. People are STILL going to fill out the bracket and are STILL going to wager sums of money large and small on the games.

And anyone who loves college basketball is now going to call in sick on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as Thursday and Friday and is still going to beg off housework Saturday and Sunday. I’ll go so far as to say a 96-team tournament will be better than what we know now, because it seems inconceivable that ESPN wouldn’t grab at least the first week of the tournament and bash us over our frackin’ heads with coverage.

Remember the good ol’ days when ESPN carried every single game of the first two rounds, even if it had to be aired on tape delay. It’ll be even better now, because with four cable networks and ABC at the disposal of the Most Powerful Entity In Sports, every game can be televised in its entirety. No more worrying about CBS cutting away from Ye Alma Mater because it’s getting smoked by 26 points in the first half.

So as a college basketball fan who thinks 64 (or 65) teams is perfect, you’ll get over this, much like I got over the wild card in baseball or an NHL purist got over hockey being played in states such as Florida, Texas and California. Liking it more the old way rarely stops anyone from paying as much attention to the new way.

Still, even though expansion is inevitable and unavoidable, a 96-team field will be far from perfect, particularly for the mid-majors and those who root for them. For us, the new NCAA Tournament will sound a lot better in pitch form than in reality—kind of how that new long-distance or cable plan sounds great when you’re enticed to agree to it during a phone call but how it looks a lot different, and less awesome, once the first bill arrives and you read the fine print.

This will no doubt be pitched as a way of including more mid-majors in the field. You got screwed in 2006? Not anymore! More teams mean more room for the mid-majors!

That is technically true, but it also means a lot more room for the bubble BCS league teams, and anyone who thinks a mid-major is any more likely to win a future battle for one of the last spots in the field than it is now is crazy. For proof, check out last year’s NIT field.

The NIT is owned by the NCAA and will almost certainly cease to exist if the NCAA expands to 96, so let’s assume that the 27 at-large teams that were invited to the NIT last year would have made a 96-team NCAA field. The other five bids went to teams that won the regular season title in a mid-major conference but lost in their conference tournament (and you can forget about those schools getting an automatic bid to the new NCAA Tournament).

Of the 27 at-large bids, 20 went to schools from the big six BCS conferences, Conference USA or the Mountain West. That total increases to 22 if you consider the Atlantic 10 a major conference and thus discount Duquesne and Rhode Island.

In addition, eight BCS schools with fewer than 20 wins—including 17-15 Washington State and 16-14 Georgetown—reached the NIT last year, almost half the total of the 20-win teams left out of the NCAA and NIT (17).

I wouldn’t expect the ratio of at-large bids awarded to true mid-majors to increase much at all in a 96-team field. Three true mid-majors (Xavier, Dayton and Butler) received invites last year, a mere nine percent of the at-large field. That translates to about six invites in a 96-team tournament with 65 at-large bids.

So there probably would have been room for Hofstra and Northern Iowa in 2006 (no accounting for Selection Committee politics, of course), or Creighton, St. Mary’s and Niagara last year, as well as a couple others. But I’d bet that Illinois State, a five seed in last year’s NIT, and George Mason, a seven seed, would have been perilously perched on the bubble of a 96-team field.

And those mid-majors that do make the field will have an even longer hill to climb and more obstacles to overcome than they do now. Expect the Round of 96 to look a lot like Bracket Buster weekend, with mid-majors opposing one another and automatically cutting the list of possible Cinderellas in half. The ultimate end game here is a Sweet Sixteen weekend in which the closest thing to a cuddly underdog is 17-13 Arizona, the no. 18 seed in the West.

The 64-team field existed for 21 years before Mason made the Final Four. How long do you think it’ll take before a mid-major a team wins FIVE games to reach the Final Four? If the NCAA has its way, forever. That should be the most worrisome side effect of a 96-team tournament, not hard-to-read brackets.

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