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NCAA tournament expansion could become a big issue

In 2006, George Mason shocked the system by getting in to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team and going to the Final Four.
In 2006, George Mason shocked the system by getting in to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team and going to the Final Four. (Preston Keres/the Washington Post)

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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

The college basketball season's most significant question does not concern a team, player or coach but rather an easily recognizable, straight-lined symmetrical image, a bracket that has emblazoned T-shirts and hampered office productivity in March for a quarter century.

The NCAA tournament -- tweaked just once since 1985 -- is potentially on the verge of a substantial growth spurt that could alter its beauty, appeal and long-term relationship with the sporting public. The NCAA, which could opt out of its $6 billion television rights deal with CBS by July 31, is considering expanding the 65-team field to include as many as 96 teams.

As teams jockey for seeding and berths in this year's tournament, coaches, fans and media members are engaging in a public debate -- much like the private one NCAA executives are having with informed parties -- about what, if any, changes should be made to a three-week event that has become one of the nation's most popular sports fixtures. While the tournament grew incrementally from eight teams in 1939 to 64 in 1985 (and finally 65 in 2001), the push toward change this time has divided the college basketball world.

Most fans and media members pan significant expansion because they feel it will cheapen the regular season, render many first-round NCAA tournament games unappealing and reward middling teams when they have little to no chance to win the national championship.

"Those fans are not from a school that was left out of the tournament last year," said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, later adding, "You have teams in now that can't win the tournament."

Most coaches endorse it because it would provide memorable experiences for more players, benefit capable teams they feel are excluded from the current field and perhaps even save jobs of colleagues who are judged by their ability to make the NCAA tournament.

"There is no good basketball reason to expand, at least to expand dramatically," countered Joe Lunardi, who projects the tournament field for ESPN and teaches an online course on the selection process. "This year's number 66 is not going to be good enough to play for the national championship, so I would be hard-pressed to make a case for number 96. I don't think the world would be any worse off if we don't have 13 Big East teams in the tournament."

Because there are varied perspectives, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said it is important "everybody gets together and understands all those things before making statements that 'This is the way to do it.' And I don't think that's being done."

Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, said the NCAA is in a due-diligence phase, and that an internal negotiating group led by NCAA interim president Jim Isch is discussing an array of options with officials throughout college sports.

"It's an everyday thing from first arrival in the office very early to very late into the night, but that's just part of the fun," Shaheen said. "Kind of our own version of madness; it just started before March."

The following issues are all paramount: Should the purpose of the event be to create the best experience for the players? Should it be to stage the fairest championship event? Or should holding an entertaining tournament be the focus? When posed with those three questions, Shaheen simply said, "Yes."

The complexity of the issue, from a basketball and business perspective, is one of the reasons why the NCAA is considering several options, including no change at all. And coaches have voiced nearly as many ideas as there are teams in the field now.

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