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Expansion wouldn’t kill the NCAA tournament, but it would be less fun

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament last grew from 65 to 68 teams in 2011. Further expansion could be on the horizon. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The NCAA, in its never-ending quest to add billions of dollars to its billions of dollars, is getting ready to expand its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The only questions are exactly when the announcement will be made and when the expanded format will kick in.

The guess here is that the tournaments will expand from the current 68 teams to 96. This will add 28 more games to the menu for the television networks. It will be applauded in all corners of the coaching world, and I’m guessing most fans will like the idea because it will increase their teams’ chances of making the field. The bubble will be so big that it might not fit onto the bracketologists’ ever-changing radar screens. (It will still fit.)

The latest not-so-subtle hint that expansion is coming to a television near you came last week at ACC basketball media day when Commissioner Jim Phillips dropped it into his “All is well with the ACC” introductory remarks.

“The time is now,” said Phillips, who is part of something called the NCAA “transformation committee.” In English, that means he’s one of the guys charged with finding new ways to make more money.

“The time is now as we’re looking at the overall structure of the NCAA, and one of their responsibilities has been championships,” Phillips said. “So I’m in favor of looking at it, and I really would like us to expand.”

At least Phillips was upfront about what he wants — as opposed to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who recently said the tournament needs “a fresh look.”

Exactly what does that mean, Commissioner? Oh, wait; we know what it means.

Phillips droned on about the importance of protecting “the AQs” — automatic qualifiers — but made it clear that his plan is about more at-large teams making the field. As in, more teams from the power conferences. Anyone who thinks expansion is going to mean more “opportunities” — another Phillips word — for teams from the traditional one-bid conferences should look to invest in the imminent return of New Coke.

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(One side note: If the NCAA is going to insist on expansion, it should make the National Invitation Tournament strictly for non-major conferences. Invite schools that think playing in the NIT is cool, not the 13th-place team from the ACC, Big Ten or SEC. The NIT already got kicked out of New York. Maybe this could save it.)

A little bit of history is important here. The last time the NCAA looked seriously at expansion was in 2010, when its megabucks contract with CBS was up for renegotiation. Commissioners and athletic directors began floating the idea of expanding to 96 teams or perhaps 128. More teams, more TV revenue.

I had an argument about the subject one night with Gary Williams, whose Maryland team had missed the tournament three times after an 11-year run during which it qualified every season and won a national title along the way. Like most coaches, Williams very much favored expansion.

“What you anti-expansionists don’t understand,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “is that playing in the tournament is something the players will remember the rest of their lives. It’s a memory they carry with them forever.”

“You’re right,” I said. “That’s because it’s hard to get into the tournament. Even for a program as good as yours, you know you have to work hard every year to be sure you’re going to get in. You expand, it becomes almost automatic and making it is no longer a big deal. Now, it’s a big deal.”

It’s still a big deal, but it will lose a lot of its magic if half the “Power Six” schools, including those from the Big East, play in the tournament.

The response to the trial balloons floated by the NCAA, including during longtime president Mark Emmert’s Final Four news conference, was negative enough that the tournament only expanded from 65 teams to 68 — aided greatly by convincing TBS to join CBS in ponying up for a multibillion-dollar contract that CBS could not, or would not, pay for on its own.

The benefit of adding three teams was that the dreaded “play-in” game — created in 2001 to keep from losing an at-large bid when the Mountain West came on as an automatic qualifier — was replaced by the “First Four,” which sent eight teams to Dayton, Ohio, rather than two. More importantly, the NCAA got the big-bucks new TV deal it craved.

It signed a 14-year contract with CBS and TBS that spring worth $10.8 billion. Six years later, the contract was extended through 2032 at a value of $8.8 billion for the added eight years. Talk about a golden goose. The tournament will expand well before 2032, and new Monopoly numbers will be written into a new TV deal.

For the record, I am not an “anti-expansionist” across the board — just in basketball. I believe the expansion from four teams to 12 for the College Football Playoff is a good thing, if only because it guarantees the non-power-conference schools will get at least one slot every year. In the first eight years of the four-team playoff, the non-power schools got one invite.

Beyond that are simple numbers. There are 131 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Four spots in the championship tournament mean that one-thirty-third of eligible schools get to play. Even going to 12 teams means that less than 10 percent of FBS schools will qualify.

In basketball, there are 358 men’s Division I teams and 356 women’s teams. That means 19 percent of teams qualify for the tournament, more than double the percentage in football even after the playoff expansion.

The men’s tournament expanded from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 in 1985. That proved to be the magic number: no byes, two days of first-round upsets that captivated the country, real Cinderellas getting their moment — or in Butler’s case, moments — in the spotlight.

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That number was locked in until the silly “play-in” game money grab in 2001. The creation of the First Four in 2011 was an improvement and kept the idea of Cinderellas alive — although the notion of UCLA playing the role of Cinderella in 2021 by advancing from the First Four to the Final Four was a bit far-fetched.

The larger point is this: In an era when expansion has become a euphemism for “show me the money” in all sports, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has added four teams in 38 years and has only continued to grow and grow in popularity.

I’ve often said the NCAA tournament is so good that even the NCAA and its TV “partners” can’t ruin it. Games now routinely take close to 2½ hours; there are 10 three-minute TV timeouts per game; there are 20-minute halftimes and middle-of-the-night tipoffs. And yet, we remain riveted.

Expansion won’t kill the NCAA tournament, but it will make it a lot less fun. The shark hasn’t been jumped yet, but it is looming in the distance.

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