Commentary

Regrettably, expansion seems inevitable

Thursday's NCAA news conference doesn't help perception of a 96-team tourney field

Originally Published: April 1, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Essentially, this is what we learned from NCAA head honchos here Thursday afternoon:

• They don't care about fans.

• They don't care about the regular season.

• They don't care about conference tournaments.

• And they sure don't care about student-athletes' being bothered by that pesky "student" portion of their hyphenated moniker by going to class.

What do they care about? Cash.

The NCAA made its annual state-of-the-game presentation as the Final Four festivities kicked off across the street from its headquarters. In the process, it unveiled the concoction the evil scientists have been working on over at the lab.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota v Illinois
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellAll the bubble battles in the weeks leading up to the tourney? Likely just seeding battles in the future.

No one said a 96-team NCAA tournament was coming for sure.

But they sure used an awful lot of words to explain how hypothetically such a tourney might look.

To be exact, 2,505 words were uttered in the opening address by Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's vice president for basketball and business strategies.

Yes, I counted.

And for the record, there were 1,666 words in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Abe Lincoln needed just 268 words to define the importance of the Civil War in his Gettysburg Address.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, this was a spin that Baryshnikov would envy.

By either next season or 2014, the 96-team bracket is coming to a centerfold near you.

So before making the official announcement to destroy what many consider to be the perfect postseason, the NCAA needs you to understand why 96 teams is good for you -- even if the folks in charge sound an awful lot like a mom trying to shove Brussels sprouts down a toddler's throat.

"In terms of context, it's important to point out that across the 88 championships that the association has, the majority of them have expanded in the last 10 years," Shaheen said. "The topic of field size is an evergreen topic that is up to our membership."

The fact of the matter is, 96 teams is good only for the people cashing the checks, the ones who see an option out of the $6 billion deal with CBS as a greed grab for an even bigger financial windfall.

"I'm glad you asked that question, because obviously we want to reveal all of the numbers that have been discussed," Shaheen deadpanned when asked about additional revenue.

Go with zeroes, lots of them.

Shaheen said three different models were under consideration -- leaving things as they are with 65 teams or moving to a field of 68 or 96 -- and then spent 99.9 percent of his speech explaining how 96 teams would work and why it will work.

The convoluted plan goes like this: The tournament would begin on a Thursday or Friday, as it always does, but only teams seeded 33 through 96 would play on those days. The winners would face teams 1 through 32 on Saturday or Sunday.

The winners of those games advance to the second round, to be played on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Sweet 16 continuing Thursday and Friday, as always.

In other words, if we had had a 96-team bracket this season, ninth-seeded Northern Iowa would have been playing its third game in six days when it squared off against top-seeded Kansas.

Hero Ali Farokhmanesh would have been playing on Gumby legs.

And yet the NCAA insists that 96 teams won't change a thing, when logic says it will change everything.

If you think the arenas looked empty this season, wait until cash-strapped fans are asked to take a weeklong furlough to follow their favorite team and college students are forced to miss a week of school to root for their "classmates."

The first and second rounds will have all the atmosphere of an accountants' convention, with only the richest of the rich able to shuck work and travel.

"Well, throughout the season right now, people go watch teams in the 30s play teams in the 90s," Shaheen argued. "Actually, there are a number of sold-out games where you have teams playing in the top 10 that play teams in the 300s."

Except those games are on campus, not in Spokane or Buffalo.

Shaheen also insists that both the regular season and the conference tournaments will still matter -- "our objective over the regular season would be to promote in an unprecedented fashion the relevance of what's happening on courts across the country as we get into Division I men's basketball."

The NCAA best hire one helluva public-relations firm to promote the drivel that will be the regular season, because all of those great nonconference games that dot the calendar in November and December are going to disappear.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIREA 5-11 league record? No worries, Roy. With a 96-team field this year, it would've simply meant UNC missed out on a first-round bye.

What good does it do a national program like Kentucky or North Carolina to play a tough nonleague game? A few patsies, one or two traditional rivalries, a respectable run through the SEC or the ACC, and you're in.

Consider: The Tar Heels would be in a 96-team field this year. Connecticut, too.

Easily.

And yet the NCAA doesn't like the term "watered-down" to describe a potential expanded field.

Perhaps "diluted" is more palatable?

Why on earth would a league like the Big East even bother to put its teams through the bloodbath known as the Big East tournament if it were going to get 13 of its teams into the Big Dance? (That's the number that bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected the league would've gotten had the 96-team field been in place this season.)

"Certainly the regular season, the impact on the regular season would be of issue," said selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero, who doubles as the UCLA athletic director in real life. "Conference tournaments would be of issue, and the relevance of regular-season games as indicated."

Most hypocritical of all, the same organization that started its news conference extolling the virtues and progress of academic reform in men's basketball then unveiled a plan that essentially would remove winning teams from an entire week of school.

When John Feinstein of the Washington Post tried to press Shaheen on the travel timetable, it didn't go well.

Pirouetting like Misha, Shaheen argued first that no one would play until Thursday of the first week -- neglecting to point out that currently only NIT teams and the two opening-round opponents play on Monday through Wednesday and avoiding the second-week conundrum altogether.

He then tried to explain that teams lose and go home every weekend.

Which is true, except that it overlooks the tricky little fact that every weekend, teams actually win and keep playing, too.

Right now there's a three- to four-day window between games, plenty of time for a quick return to campus and a stopover in biology (or math class, in the case of Gordon Hayward). With 96 teams, there would be two days between games, at best. No one is going back to campus.

The fact is, the NCAA can use 25,005 words to spin until it can't see straight.

There is only one honest answer it can give: This is about the money.

So open wide, college basketball fans.

Here come the Brussels sprouts.

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

Dana O'Neil | email

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