John Feinstein: NCAA tournament expansion would make cents, but not sense

by John Feinstein
Sunday, February 7, 2010; D08

If there is one thing you can absolutely count on from the NCAA, it is an almost unique form of slippery deceit. No one involved in its decision-making ever tells an outright lie. They also never tell an outright truth.

Everything is always being studied. Ask the NCAA its position on March coming after February and you will be told the issue is being studied. This is an organization that spent hours and hours last summer debating the merits of allowing member schools to feed bagels to their athletes. (Not surprisingly, the proposal came from the ACC because, heck, things are going so well in football and basketball, why not spend time on the bagel issue?)

In its infinite wisdom the NCAA came down in favor of bagels -- but against cream cheese to go with the bagels.


All of which makes the current debate over expansion of the NCAA men's basketball tournament entirely predictable. There is not one single reason to expand the tournament -- not one.

Oh sure, there are a few coaches in the major conferences who whine every year when their team with a 7-9 conference record and 10 cupcake wins on its home court doesn't make the field. There are the TV talking heads who talk about "deserving teams" that are left out, too. Whether they are deserving is questionable at best. The fact that teams actually have to play well to reach postseason is part of the tournament's magic.

In fact, the tournament should be made smaller -- one team smaller -- returning the number of tournament teams to 64, the perfect number until the Mountain West became an automatic-bid league and the power schools couldn't bear to part with one of their 34 at-large bids. Thus was born the play-in game (it's so NCAA to insist on calling it "the opening-round game") with two smaller schools sent to Dayton, Ohio, to try to play their way in to a first-round matchup with a No. 1 seed.

Now though, we are staring a 96-team field right in the face. Many people who have had contact with NCAA decision-makers recently say it is a "done deal." The NCAA will only admit it is studying "models" that would involve tournament expansion. What the heck is a model, some kind of Dick Vitale video game?

Here's the truth of what is going on right now: The NCAA has the right to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS this summer. ESPN-ABC has already made it crystal clear that if the contract is reopened it will throw huge Disney dollars at the NCAA to try to take the tournament away from CBS, which will televise the tournament for the 29th year starting next month. CBS, which doesn't want to lose the tournament, is already looking into taking on TNT as a cable partner to help defray costs and because an additional 32 games would make life tough on CBS in terms of giving up prime-time scheduling.

Realistically, the only way for either ESPN-ABC or CBS-TNT to come close to breaking even is for there to be more games for which to sell commercial time. As it is, CBS squeezes every possible second of commercial time into the games -- 20-minute halftimes, extending 30-second timeouts to 45 seconds, lengthening the nine TV timeouts. If the rights fee goes up drastically, more commercials will be needed.

That will probably mean more TV timeouts, even longer games and even more corporate mentions. "These free throws are brought to you by . . . "

But that won't be enough. Whichever network forks over the insane dollars the NCAA will ask for will need more games to even have a chance to break even. That's the only reason a 96-team tournament is being considered. It has nothing to do with making the tournament better -- it won't. Imagine a first round in which the highest-seeded teams playing are the No. 9 seeds in each region.

And don't buy the hoo-ha that this will be good for the little guys because they'll get more bids. You can bet most of the extra bids will go to those deserving 10th-place teams in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten. If there were 96 teams in the field this year, the entire ACC might get in. Wow, talk about a meaningful regular season.

There's also the "student-athlete" issue. You know how the NCAA runs around screaming "student-athlete" all the time to describe the players, some of whom actually attend classes. An expanded tournament adds even more travel for "student-athletes" who already miss large chunks of class time during the tournament. The presidents scream they can't have a football tournament -- which would mean almost zero missed class time -- because of their concern for the "student-athletes." Basketball players are apparently so smart they can miss most of a month (in an expanded tournament) and still all graduate.

If you believe that, you're going to be thrilled when the Easter Bunny comes to your door in April.

Here are a couple of other things that will happen: Selection Sunday, one of the best sports days of the year, will lose a huge chunk of its meaning. There's real suspense now because there are good teams that sit on the bubble not knowing if they will be in or out. With 96 teams, there will be a bunch of mediocre teams sitting on the bubble, none of them really worthy of a bid or likely to be around the tournament very long.

What's more, an expanded NCAA tournament will destroy the National Invitation Tournament. Many will say that's no loss, but it is a loss. The NIT has been around longer than the NCAA tournament. Used properly, it is a terrific event for those teams that don't make the NCAA tournament. Oh sure, some big-conference teams tank in the NIT because they don't want to play any more, but for smaller-conference teams it is a great consolation prize. Ask the people at Penn State if winning it last year wasn't a big deal. The NIT should live on the same way the second-tier bowls live on. It has a role and it shouldn't just go away in the name of -- you guessed it -- more money.

The sad thing about this is that all these arguments will fall on deaf ears. There may be a few influential coaches out there who would be listened to, but they aren't likely to raise their voices because they believe (incorrectly) that more bids will save coaches' jobs. People know mediocrity when they see it. A coach who consistently gets into the tournament from a major conference as a No. 22 seed and never gets out of the second round is going to be fired. Making the tournament will be devalued by 96 teams the same way 500 home runs has been devalued by steroids.

As recently as 1974, there were only 25 teams in the tournament. You had to be very good to get a bid. But the NCAA basketball committee recognized that too many very good teams were being left out -- like Maryland in 1974, when it was no worse than the third-best team in the country. So the committee began to expand: first to 32 teams, then 40, 48, 52, 53 and, finally, 64 beginning in 1985.

That was the perfect number. Everyone played the same number of games. Each weekend had a rhythm to it: teams playing two games a week until a champion was crowned. First-round games became events and the Final Four became almost as big a deal in American sports as the Super Bowl.

The good news is that the NCAA tournament is so good that not even the NCAA can ruin it. But they can sure try. And remember, every time someone opens their mouth to explain why 96 teams is a good idea, there's only one honest answer: "Show me the money."

The rest is just NCAA-speak. And there's neither truth nor common sense in any of that.

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