Commentary

What players thought of 96-team idea

Originally Published: April 22, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was set to run Thursday afternoon … and then came the breaking news about a 68-team NCAA tourney field. So much for that. But we still feel it's useful to publish the thoughts on expansion from a cross-section of players, the one group we really hadn't heard much from on this issue. And because a field of 96 isn't out of the question for the future, this insight still could be relevant down the road. Here is the original, unchanged article:

Kevin Coble is no one's fool.

The Northwestern senior doesn't expect anyone to solicit his opinion about the possibility of an expanded NCAA tournament field of 96.

[+] EnlargeKevin Coble
Jerry Lai/US PresswireKevin Coble wants Northwestern to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in a 65-team field, not an expanded field.

"They don't ask us," he said. "So just tell me when and where to show up."

Since the idea of tourney expansion was first floated, it seems everyone has an opinion to share (present company included) and everyone has an opinion that's been solicited.

Except for one small, fringe group -- the guys who would actually play in the supersized thing.

Well, know this: The players have no shortage of opinions.

But unlike the fans (universally hate it), the media (universally hate it) and the NCAA accountants (universally love it), the players offer a far more disparate reaction when asked about possibly playing in an inflated tournament field.

That shouldn't come as a surprise. Aside from coaches who have million-dollar contracts at stake, no one is more invested in how the NCAA tournament is played than the people who play in it. Yet no one's opinion on expansion is more swayed by one simple question: How will this affect me (and my school)?

With the NCAA board and executive committee meeting on April 29 in Indianapolis and a possible announcement coming soon after that, ESPN.com decided to take the pulse for 96 teams from the pulse of the NCAA tournament -- the players.

Prince Charming

At Kansas, every day is a basket-ball. The invitation is never lost in the mail, and no fairy godmothers are necessary to make the magic happen. The last time the NCAA deigned to play the NCAA tournament without the Jayhawks was in 1989. Their 21-year run eclipses every other school in the country.

So it's not surprising that at KU, the players don't much care about whether the field is 65, 96 or 128 teams. It's easy to be gracious when no one is knocking you off the bubble.

"I know the tournament would be longer, but I'd be happy for those teams that are always on the bubble or the teams from the low conferences trying to get in and make a name for themselves," Jayhawks forward Marcus Morris said.

Of course, one of those teams made a name for itself at the expense of the Jayhawks this year. Northern Iowa's stunning upset of top-seeded Kansas trashed brackets and set the tone for what would be one of the more unpredictable NCAA tournaments in recent history.

Opening the field to 96 teams could open the field to more UNIs.

"That's OK," Morris said. "Teams that get in should get in. Northern Iowa deserved to be in. That's what happens sometimes in March."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Morris
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDespite being on the wrong side of a feel-good tourney story, Kansas' Marcus Morris doesn't mind seeing more bubble teams enter the field.

Barring a ridiculously horrific season, Kansas and teams of its ilk will have a hard time missing an NCAA tournament field of 96. With tough in-conference games naturally built into the schedule, a decent to even middling Big 12 finish almost guarantees the Jayhawks of continuing their dance marathon.

The presumably comfortable cushion has left some fans wondering whether college basketball would then go by the way of the NFL, where starters watch the subs play out the string, preserved to prevent injury.

"That's definitely crazy," Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "Our coaches won't let us slack off. Maybe you could sit out a practice, but a game? Not unless you're LeBron James."

Cinderella

The slipper fit like a glove, sliding on for keeps when Ali Farokhmanesh nailed a no-guts-no-glory 3-pointer to beat Kansas in the second round.

Northern Iowa went from just another good directional school to a national phenomenon.

Nothing and everything could change if the NCAA tournament expanded to 96 teams, That's why there is decided indecision about expansion for players on strong mid-majors like UNI.

"It's kind of up in the air for me," Panthers guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe said. "It will help us out for sure. There are no worries if, say, we had lost to Evansville or something like that. So it's more comforting, but I don't know. Getting to the NCAA tournament is getting to the NCAA tournament, but in a lot of ways, it would be a lot harder."

The Panthers entered this year's field as a No. 9 seed, overcoming the cobwebs of an 11-day layoff between the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament to beat UNLV 69-66 to reach the showdown with KU.

Were the 2010 bracket expanded to 96 teams, Northern Iowa would have been on its third game in six days when it took the floor against a fresh-legged Kansas team.

"We would basically go from not playing for almost two weeks to playing a bunch of games on one day's rest," Ahelegbe said. "That would be very difficult, especially when you're up against a team like Kansas and every play is so important."

For schools like UNI, the other issue could come long before the NCAA field is announced: Who would want to play Northern Iowa or Siena or Butler during the regular season? There's plenty of risk and absolutely no reward.

Teams from power conferences need only finish in the middle of their leagues to guarantee a spot, eliminating the need to bolster their résumés with good nonconference games.

If you're Kentucky, you play traditional rivals Louisville, Indiana, a handful of guarantee games and let the SEC take care of the rest.

"I just don't know if we'll be able to get the competition we're seeking," Ahelegbe said. "If you can't schedule a Boston College or a decent team, you lack the strength of schedule that they look at for building résumé."

The carriage that turned into a pumpkin

Kent State won 23 games and the Mid-American Conference regular season, but then poof! On March 11, the pixie dust blew away in the wind, and with one loss to Ohio, the Golden Flashes' carriage returned to the pumpkin patch.

After Kent State was upset in the first round of the MAC tournament, its body of work went for naught, as the one-bid league sent the Bobcats to the big dance after Ohio won the conference tourney.

The Golden Flashes, meanwhile, took their regular-season title to the NIT.

But if the field is expanded to 96, maybe the carriage would keep rolling.

"I think the best thing would be to take the team that wins the regular season and the team that wins the conference tournament, if they're two different teams," Kent State guard Rodriquez Sherman said. "That way you're rewarding the teams that have been playing great all year, won 20 games or whatever."

In traditionally one-bid leagues like the MAC, the pressure is almost indescribable, because one bad game at the wrong time can mean the difference between euphoria and dejection.

To fans, of course, that's the fun of Champ Week, when everything is on the line and the desperation is almost palpable.

It's considerably less fun, however, when you're playing with everything in the balance.

Kent State basketball
AP Photo/Mark DuncanKent State might be the type of the team that benefits from an expanded field.

"Everyone is thinking about it -- the players, the coaches, even the faculty," Sherman said. "You go through all of those hard practices, beat each other up, and you lose in the conference tournament. It's like you did all of that for nothing."

As for the notion that Kent State would make a watered-down field, Sherman isn't buying.

"It's still going to be called the NCAA tournament, right?" Sherman said. "That's all that matters to me."

In need of the fairy godmother

The pixie dust has never found its way to Evanston, Ill., where Northwestern has waited to be swept off its feet since the NCAA tournament's inception. The Wildcats hold the ignominious distinction of being the lone team from a BCS league never to make the tourney field.

Presumably that would change if more teams were invited to the ball.

Yet flying in the face of the theory that players want only what makes their success come easier, Northwestern doesn't want Easy Street.

"You never want that asterisk next to your name -- the first year the tournament expanded to 96," Kevin Coble said. "We feel like we're on the verge of doing something special, so selfishly, at the very least, I hope they delay [expansion] a year. That way we'd be able to say we got in the right way. It's 64 teams, the best in the country. Making it 96 would only dilute the elitism and the exclusivity of the tournament."

This past season the Wildcats were tantalizingly close to making the field. Despite a season-ending foot injury to Coble -- who has just recently progressed to light running in his rehab schedule -- Northwestern won 20 games, including victories over Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.

But a late-season loss to Penn State coupled with a too-quick exodus from the Big Ten tournament put the Cats in the NIT field instead for the second consecutive year.

"If you go to 96, you're essentially dumping the NIT field into the NCAA field," Coble said. "So we would have been in the last two years."

Coble, a political science major at a notoriously tough academic school, also is concerned about the nonbasketball impact of an expanded field.

If the NCAA sticks to a plan laid out at the Final Four, teams would begin play on Thursday and Friday. First-round games would continue on Saturday and Sunday, second-round games on Tuesday and Wednesday and the Sweet 16 getting back on schedule Thursday and Friday.

Northwestern runs on a quarter system, so final exams always fall around mid-March, never an ideal time for a basketball team. Coble said that this season many of his teammates took exams in the hotel on the day of Northwestern's NIT game at Rhode Island, cramming in the test just before shootaround.

"You're talking a week of basically being gone and traveling," Coble said. "When you're in the NCAA tournament, I'd imagine you'd like to focus on basketball and have your schoolwork done ahead of time, but that would be impossible."

The stepsisters

Let's be clear: Calling Mizzou a stepsister is not meant to imply that the Tigers are either ugly or unaccomplished.

Missouri is what a lot of BCS-league schools are: a very good program still waiting for that special dance, the one that takes the Tigers to the Final Four.

And despite a more than respectable 23 NCAA tournament appearances, it's the last waltz that matters most to the Tigers.

"I don't think making the tournament is success," Tigers guard Kim English said. "Success to me is dancing, going to the second weekend or the Final Four. I don't want this to be like college football, where you have the Frank Mustards Napkin Bowl -- I said that because I'm at the dining hall. Every team makes a bowl, but what's that mean? The ones that matter are the Fiesta Bowl or Pasadena. They mean something."

Thanks to Mike Anderson's now-patented "fastest 40 minutes in basketball," the Tigers have gotten ever closer to the promised land.

Two years ago Mizzou mauled its way to the Elite Eight, and this past season the No. 10-seeded Tigers topped Clemson in a first-round upset.

But would Missouri, despite its hellacious training to improve stamina, have the legs to keep on playing if it weren't afforded an early bye?

"It would probably feel like an AAU tournament again; one day in Vegas, we played five games in one day," English said. "It would definitely be tough, but at the end of the day you gotta do it if that's the way to win a national championship.

English, like most of the players interviewed for this story, has spoken at least casually with his teammates about a potential change in the tournament landscape. They, like so many fans, have tons of questions about how it would look, who would be included and what it might do to the rest of the season.

Unlike fans, however, the Tigers have one more critical question: How dramatically will things change for them?

"We have a chance to be the first Missouri team in a long time to make the tournament four years in a row," English said. "But if we make the next one and it's a 96-team field, everyone will say the same thing -- 'Yeah, they did it, but who didn't make the tournament?'

"But I'm just a guard from Missouri. I don't have much say in it."

Even if he, plus his peers, have plenty to say about it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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