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On men's basketball tournament expansion, the NCAA talks a big game

By John Feinstein
Friday, April 2, 2010; D05

INDIANAPOLIS

If there was any doubt about the NCAA's intention to expand the men's basketball tournament to 96 teams, it went away on Thursday afternoon.

That's not to say anyone gave any straight answers during the NCAA's annual Final Four news conference, which isn't really a news conference but rather a chance for the suits to come in and tell everyone that all is right with their world.

They made sure everyone knew that more "student-athletes" are graduating -- that's counting all 347 Division I programs, many of whom have no chance to compete on the basketball court, but let's not go there. They also reminded everyone that the selection committee (again) did a fabulous job putting together the tournament, even if it insists that everything it does be kept top secret.

But that was all just the warmup act for Greg Shaheen, who is an NCAA vice president but also, far more importantly, the guy steering the expansion ship from inside NCAA headquarters. Shaheen is a bright, capable guy who has done a lot of good things since the late Myles Brand brought him to the NCAA as his right-hand man six years ago.

His assignment Thursday was to explain how the 96-team field will work and then try to convince people that no decisions have been made. "This could all be a discussion about nothing," he said at one point.

Right. And coaches get fired for not graduating enough players.

Here is how the tournament will play out in case you haven't, like the NCAA, been "studying models."

-- The top 32 teams -- eight in each region -- will receive byes. The remaining 64 teams -- seeds No. 9 through 24 in each region -- will play first-round games at eight sites on Thursday and Friday after Selection Sunday. The play-in game mercifully goes the way of the Edsel.

-- The second round, with 64 teams still playing, takes place on Saturday and Sunday. The round of 32 moves into the second week and in all likelihood is played on Tuesday and Wednesday. Whether those games take place at the first- and second-round sites or at the region sites is still undecided. Either way, the round of 16 is Thursday and Friday as in the past and the rest of the tournament plays out as it has since 1973: region finals on Saturday and Sunday, Final Four the following Saturday and national title game on Monday.

"This should mean the same travel time and missed class or perhaps less for most student-athletes than in the past," Shaheen said.

Gee, that sounds good. There's just one problem: It isn't true.

Shaheen went on in great detail about the travel schedule for the first week: Teams without a bye would be on the same schedule as teams have been on in the past but, he pointed out triumphantly, the teams with a bye could travel later in the week, arriving on site Thursday night for Saturday games and Friday night for Sunday games.

That's where he stopped talking travel schedules, because for all intents and purposes no one who advances to the Sweet 16 is going home at all during the second week. Sure, such games could fall on spring break, but most schools take spring break earlier--in many cases during the first week of the tournament, meaning the extra day or two at home comes when there are no classes.

Most schools that advance to the round of 16 will play on Saturday or Sunday and then Tuesday or Wednesday and then again on Thursday or Friday. "Teams that play on Saturday could go home before their Tuesday game," Shaheen said later on.

Sure, most coaches are going to want to play a game Saturday, perhaps a late game, get on a plane, fly home and then (in almost all cases) get on a plane again on Monday to play their next game Tuesday. If Cornell is playing an hour from home in Syracuse, it might go home. Otherwise, forget it.

When Shaheen was pressed on the second-week schedule during the news conference (okay, by me), he kept referring back to the first-week schedule. He simply refused to answer the question about the second week. Later he said, "Well, it wouldn't affect that many teams."

So now it's okay for some "student-athletes" to miss an entire week of class? This isn't even taking into account some missed class time during the first week and the four days missed by the two teams that play for the national title during the final week, because the NCAA now requires teams to arrive at the Final Four site on Wednesday night.

All of this is coming from an organization that won't even touch the notion of a football playoff because of concerns about the "student-athletes" who would miss almost no class time if there was a football playoff in early January.

Look, this is about money and everyone knows it. Shaheen even made indirect reference to that when he talked about 88 other championships the NCAA conducts and the need to protect their financial futures. That protection comes from squeezing every possible dollar out of men's basketball. It was almost comical when someone asked if expansion was being contemplated for the women's tournament. The women's tournament costs money, so it isn't going to be expanded anytime soon.

Shaheen was also very careful to try to compartmentalize how expanding the tournament would affect college basketball. He noted that under the 65-team format, one team -- in theory -- might have to play seven games to win the title. Under the new format, he explained, two teams might have to play seven games.

That, of course, misses the point entirely. With 96 teams, the regular season is devalued because many mediocre teams will be rewarded with NCAA bids. If, as expected, regular season conference champions receive automatic berths, a lot of the magic of the conference tournaments in the so-called "one-bid" leagues will go away.

"We will promote Division I men's basketball in an unprecedented way during the regular season," Shaheen said, as if more of the NCAA's endless self-promotion is the way to ensure that college basketball continues to grow.

The bottom line is, of course, the bottom line. The tournament is going to expand, "student-athletes" will miss more class time, there won't be a football playoff, college basketball will still be a great game and the tournament itself will still be great fun, because it's so good even the NCAA suits can't destroy it.

Let's give them all a big round of applause for that, because if we don't do it, they will.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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