Tournament expansion will be tolerable as long as it's limited

Limited expansion of the NCAA tournament could continue to make the annual event meaningful for mid-major programs such as Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Anything more could prove disruptive.
Limited expansion of the NCAA tournament could continue to make the annual event meaningful for mid-major programs such as Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Anything more could prove disruptive. (Skip Peterson/associated Press)
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By John Feinstein
Saturday, April 24, 2010

So as it turns out, there will be at least one more Selection Sunday that matters.

The announcement Thursday that the NCAA tournament field will only expand to 68 teams next season under a new television agreement with CBS and Turner is simply delaying the inevitable, but even if it's only for one more year, it is something to celebrate.

Let's not think for one second that this was done for any of the right reasons. It certainly has nothing to do with what's best for the "student-athletes," or what's best for college basketball or for the tournament itself. It probably has as much to do with the logistical problem of tearing up existing contracts with arenas and rewriting them to add two more days of rental next season than anything else.

It may have a little to do with the NCAA not wanting to take the massive public-relations hit that will come when the field expands to 96 in one fell swoop. Do it gradually and the hammer comes down a bit less quickly.

In all likelihood, this is a one- or two-year delay before the expansionists get their way. In fact, it wouldn't be at all shocking if -- sometime before the end of the new 14-year, $10.8 billion contract announced on Thursday -- the field expanded to 128 teams. That would eliminate those pesky byes brought on by a 96-team field.

Next year's tournament -- and the NCAA is only committing to a 68-team field for now -- will probably start with four play-in games instead of one in Dayton, Ohio, on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday. If the basketball committee has any sense of the game or any inclination to do the right thing, those four games will involve the last eight at-large teams picked for the field, with the four winners moving on to a first-round game as a No. 12 seed.

Had that system been in place this year, the Dayton matchups might have looked like this: Missouri-Rhode Island, Florida-Virginia Tech, Minnesota-San Diego State and UTEP-Mississippi State. Virginia Tech, Rhode Island and Mississippi State were considered by many to be the last three teams to not make the field in 2010.

More likely, because the committee almost always goes out of its way to help the big guys -- and Butler's success this season will undoubtedly make that even more acute going forward -- the last eight automatic-bid teams will be sent to Dayton. Again, if that had been the case this season the matchups would have been something like this: Lehigh-Winthrop, North Texas-Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Morgan State-East Tennessee State and Robert Morris-Vermont.

The scenario that would send the at-large teams to Dayton is better in almost every way: It is better TV (name teams); it is fairer because the teams from one-bid leagues have to work much harder to get into the tournament, because they can go undefeated in conference play and still have to win their tournament to make the field; and it ensures the kids from smaller schools get to go a full-fledged first- and second-round site. Players from the larger schools are more likely to get another chance.

What's more, the three added at-large teams in a 68-team field will mean the one-bid teams will be seeded even lower than in the past. If Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and Rhode Island had been in this year's field, they would have been seeded no lower than 13th in a region (the lowest at-large seed this year was UTEP at No. 12). That means that three of this year's No. 15 seeds would become No. 16 seeds. One more insult to the little guys.

All that said, making the field will still mean something in 2011. The impending 96-team field will reward mediocrity and encourage teams from major conferences to schedule even more cupcake games early in the season to pad their records, knowing that finishing above .500 (overall) will almost certainly get them into the tournament.

The biggest winner in Thursday's announcement was Turner. Not only does it get a piece of the tournament beginning next season, it gets the Final Four every other year beginning in 2016. That's an incredible breakthrough for any cable network and the fact that it is Turner, not ESPN, must be a real blow to ESPN's pride. It is one thing for ESPN to sit on the sidelines while an over-the-air network televises a major event, but to do so while a cable competitor does so has to hurt. Apparently Disney's dollars are not completely unlimited. Turner must be putting in a hefty amount to get CBS to agree to give up the Final Four in alternate years, even if it is five years down the road.

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