- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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I have put the spatula away after scraping the egg off my face and can now admit that I was wrong. The NCAA isn't just about cash -- an odd sentiment in the face of a $10.8 billion television agreement, but an honest one nonetheless.
Instead of trashing the one major sporting event it does well -- as I and most people feared it would, following a news conference during the Final Four -- the NCAA announced on Thursday it is expanding the NCAA tournament to 68 teams instead of a proposed 96.
That's the caveat straight out of the mouth of interim NCAA president Jim Isch. When I pressed Isch and NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen as to whether 68 would last the length of the new 14-year television deal, the verbal tap dance began, ending only after Isch finally labeled the 68-team field a "for now" and added that "everything is on the table."
Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, added that, "We have flexibility in our deal to accommodate expansion if that happens," and Shaheen said that the new television agreement left field size totally at the discretion of the NCAA (which is why I reserve the right to cry neener-neener should 96 come to fruition after all).
But "for now" is better than "for never" and 68 is a whole lot better than 96.
So while the NCAA is riding the good-decision train, might we pose that the people in Indianapolis pay the goodwill forward even further by making the bubble teams play the real bubble games?
Shaheen said that who plays in the additional games and how those teams will be selected won't be determined until the NCAA goes through the rest of its procedural channels. An announcement likely won't be made until this summer.
Here's a solution: Let the last eight in play the first four games.
No more punishing teams that earn automatic bids by making them travel to Dayton and play in the hoops version of a tree falling in a forest -- if no one watches and the game has to float in some sort of unattached and amorphous area on the bracket, does it really count as an NCAA tournament game?
Quick, who played in the Tuesday opening-round game in Dayton this year? Take your time. I'll wait. Got paint to watch dry and water to boil anyway.
The answer: Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop. All alums of those schools are automatically disqualified if they answered correctly and due for public slogging if they got it wrong.
Since going to a 65-team field in 2001, the NCAA has forced the lowest of its low majors into the opening-round game (NCAA speak for play-in game): four teams from the SWAC and the MEAC, three from the Big South, two each from the Northeast and the MAAC and one each from the Southland, Summit and Patriot leagues have appeared in the play-in, er, opening-round game.
Every single one of them won a conference tournament title and yet every single one of them was shoved to the off-Broadway version of the Big Dance.
Instead, why not make the teams that didn't earn an automatic bid and whose résumés were only marginally good enough to warrant a trip out of basketball purgatory (the NIT) play their way into the real field?
It would be a win for the little guy, a win for the viewer and a win for CBS/Turner.
The real beauty of this new television agreement is that every game will be on national television. (Well, national for the 27 families that know where to find TruTV on their remote.)
No more teasing peak-ins or, worse, cutaways when your alma mater is winning big. Every game will be on in its entirety, which is well overdue. Bravo.
But somehow I doubt the networks paid $10.8 billion to offer a quadruple-header matching up North Texas, Robert Morris, Vermont, Morgan State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, UCSB, Lehigh and East Tennessee State, this year's 15- and 16-seeds.
No offense to those programs or their alumni bases, but those aren't the sort of name brands that drive viewership.
Instead, imagine this lineup going head-to-head: Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Illinois, UTEP, Utah State, Minnesota and, let's say, Florida and Georgia Tech.
That's a combination of Joe Lunardi's last three out this season (Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and Illinois) and the lowest-seeded at-large teams from this year's bracket.
It's a murderers' row of desperate teams with name cachet and a murderers' row that frankly deserves to suffer a little more for not getting the job done during the regular season.
The winners could slide into either the 12- or 13-seed spot, depending on how the NCAA wanted to set it up.
Granted, it's not perfect.
If the play-in winners are awarded a No. 13 seed, the 4s are perhaps punished with a tougher group of opponents than the 5s. If the play-in winners slip into the 12 line, the 5s would have to play teams with some momentum but would also gain the advantage of playing a more tired foe.
But those scenarios are no less ideal than punishing the low majors for winning their way onto the bracket.
And since, with the decision to stop the super-sizing at 68, the NCAA showed it's in the business of doing the right thing -- at least for now -- why stop?
Pay it forward.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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