A basketball tournament only the NCAA would love

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By John Feinstein
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS

Arguably, there has never been a better NCAA men's basketball tournament than the one that concluded Monday. From the very first games on the very first day there was one upset after another, one remarkable finish piling on another.

The championship game was something straight from "Hoosiers," the 1986 film based on the 1954 Indiana state championship won by tiny Milan High School over powerful Muncie Central. One finalist on Monday night in (naturally) Indianapolis was Butler. The other was Duke.

Duke is college basketball royalty, having competed in 15 Final Fours and winning four national championships. Butler had never been in the Final Four and came -- like Milan -- from virtual anonymity to compete for the championship. As luck would have it, Butler plays its home games on its campus at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which is six miles from the massive domed stadium where the Final Four was played but, more important, is the place where Milan won its title and where the movie was filmed.

In short, this NCAA Tournament is about as close to a perfect sporting event as happens in the jock pantheon.

So why is it almost certain that the NCAA will blow up a system that has worked so well for 25 years and completely change the landscape of college basketball?

The answer -- surprise -- is one word: money. A 65-team NCAA Tournament (the current format) cannot produce as much revenue as a 96-team NCAA Tournament (the likely new format) would, and no one at the NCAA seems to care how the tournament will be affected by expanding, even though expansion will mean more mediocre teams and, in all likelihood, fewer stunning upsets the first week of a watered-down event.

In short, this is the worst idea anyone has come up with since New Coke. It is also inevitable.

Men's basketball pays most of the bills for college athletics. The notion that football makes the most money is a myth. Because football teams at the highest level must fund 85 scholarships every year, only about 30 superpower schools make money. The rest struggle to break even. Basketball teams, with a fraction of the costs of football -- they fund a maximum of 13 scholarships -- and huge TV contracts for the tournament and for regular-season games, fund just about every other sport.

"We need to remember that the NCAA runs 88 championships every year," NCAA Vice President Greg Shaheen said here on Thursday. "We have an obligation to make certain they are all funded in the future."

That's about as close as anyone in the NCAA is ever going to come to admitting this is about money. Most of the time all you are going to hear is bluster about doing the right thing for "student-athletes." The NCAA is so obsessed with pushing the myth of the "student-athlete" -- a redundancy, of course, because a college athlete must be enrolled as a student -- that its tournament manual says the players must be referred to as "student-athletes" at all times.

The current CBS contract for the basketball tournament is worth about $700 million a year. The NCAA has the right to reopen the contract this summer. Since it is known that ESPN -- backed by Disney Dollars -- wants the tournament, there is likely to be a bidding war for the rights. CBS has taken on Turner Sports as a partner to provide more money and more outlets to televise games.

This is where the 96-team field comes into play. Under the current setup, to pull in enough money to make its $700 million investment viable, CBS has 10 TV timeouts for commercials built into every game, not to mention it adds five minutes to the standard 15-minute halftime to pack in more commercials. If the contract goes to, say $1 billion annually, the network that wins the bid is going to need commercial inventory. That will mean more games, as the 64 games played in today's format are already choked to the brim with commercial interruptions.

That's the real reason there will be 96 teams. Not, as NCAA propagandists say, to give more "student-athletes" the chance to play in the tournament. This isn't 6-and-under tee ball where everyone gets a trophy for participating. You're supposed to be good to have the chance to compete for a championship.

If 96 teams had been in this year's field, North Carolina, the defending national champion, would have qualified. The Tar Heels were 5-12 in games against their Atlantic Coast Conference competition. Connecticut, a two-time national champion, also would have qualified. The Huskies were 7-12 against teams from their Big East league.

In short, a 96-team field is guaranteed to reward mediocrity. Everyone who loves college basketball deserves better. Especially the "student-athletes."

John Feinstein is a contributor to The Post and the author of "Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery" and the forthcoming "Moment of Glory." He blogs at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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