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Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

NCAA tournament expansion: An idea whose time should never come

Schools such as American University, above, would still have a hard time crashing the NCAA tournament if the field expanded to 96 teams.
Schools such as American University, above, would still have a hard time crashing the NCAA tournament if the field expanded to 96 teams. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is the best event in sports. It's equitable, exciting and time-consuming -- for just the right amount of time. It's the perfect bridge between winter and spring, between college basketball and baseball, between indoors and outdoors.

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It's so great, it's co-opted the name of an entire month. We don't have April Ennui or May Mania or December Delirium. Well, we may have all those things, but they aren't official national monikers. March Madness is. As the great Andy Williams sang, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."

So of course the NCAA wants to screw it up.

The good ol' NCAA, the burr under the saddle of college sports, is considering expanding the men's basketball tournament field from 65 to 96 teams. This would lengthen the tournament by a week, give the top 32 seeds a first-round bye and make zillions of dollars for the NCAA and some lucky TV network, probably ESPN.

In other words, this is the worst idea in the history of ideas. Well, Jay Leno at 10 p.m. was the worst idea in the history of ideas. This is the worst idea in the history of sports ideas, and that includes the Bowl Championship Series, the previous leader in the category.

At the end of this year's Final Four, the NCAA can opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion -- yes, billion with a b -- contract with CBS, its partner in this enterprise since 1982. ESPN is champing at the bit to televise the tournament on some of its 6 billion -- yes, billion with a b -- stations. The Disney giant already is in bed with college sports (sorry for the visual), paying $495 million over four years to televise the five annual BCS games.

What is it about corporate greed that, when a company is making a kabillion dollars, it immediately begins wondering, "How can I make a kabillion and one dollars?" Capitalism is great, as long as you don't screw up the product. The expanded field would definitely screw up the product.

Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, has there ever been a year when you watched the Selection Show and thought, "Man, 31 teams got hosed." No. There have never been 31 teams who deserved to make the field but didn't. One or two, maybe. Not 31.

The NCAA would have us believe that more mid-majors would make it, but a more likely scenario is that virtually the entire ACC, Big East, SEC and Big 12 would be chosen. Or maybe one team from each will be left out, for appearance's sake. So you'll end up with conference foes playing each other as early as the first round. And won't that be scintillating? Everyone needs to see a third meeting each March between, say, Nebraska and Iowa State. Or a fourth, depending on the conference tournaments.

The expanded field would eliminate the goal of winning 20 games; that bar would probably be dropped to 17 or 18. And if 18 wins is good enough, a team would no longer need a "signature" win to make it. That could dramatically alter a team's nonconference schedule. There'd be little reason to load up on tough nonconference foes, which would make college hoops in November and December less interesting.

If the top 32 seeds get first-round byes, that also dilutes the championship itself. Under the current format, in order to win the NCAA title, a team has to play the maximum number of games. You have to earn it, essentially.

Adding first-round byes for 32 teams changes all that. In a 96-team format, the best 32 teams in the country will not play in the first two days of the tournament, a.k.a. the greatest two days on the sports calendar. Imagine a weekend in, say, mid-February in which not a single top 25 team plays a televised game.

That's how the first two days of the 96-team tournament would look. Fun!

First-round byes also change a team's rhythm. Think of the NFL postseason. Sit out a week and win, and it's because you were well-rested; sit out a week and lose, and it's because you weren't in fighting form. First-round byes are undemocratic.

Surprisingly, college basketball coaches seem to support the expansion to 96 teams. Well, perhaps it's not so surprising, although you'd think coaches wouldn't want to ruin a good thing. But you'd be wrong.

Coaches feel that they are judged too harshly when their teams fail to make the tournament. To which I say, boo hoo. It's very hard to feel sympathy for the coaching profession -- thanks, Lane Kiffin -- when these guys can walk away from their jobs without a backward glance at the devastated kids -- and programs -- they sometimes leave in their wake. The kids don't have that luxury, though, do they? Yet the tournament should be expanded to protect the coaches?

These are high-paying, high-profile jobs with tons of perks and guaranteed contracts; it's not like your kids are left starving in the hedgerows if you get booted. And once you're in the coaching fraternity, it's almost impossible to get out, even if you want to. (It's like the old Book of the Month Club.) Even if you're fired, you get hired somewhere else. Or you go to work for ESPN. If it lands this whale, the Worldwide Leader is going to need a lot more talking heads just to try to convince us that the 96-team field isn't the end of civilization as we know it.


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