Thursday, April 22, 2010

NCAA Expansion: Better Than Expected!

Even as the NCAA celebrated one of the best Division I Men's Basketball Tournaments in recent memory last month, there was wide speculation that the event would expand from the current 65-team format to a whopping 96 (!) teams.

Coaches sighed in relief at the thought of saving their jobs by making the watered-down field, and NCAA executives, alongside university presidents and athletic directors, practically drooled over the idea of all that new revenue.

Everyone else shuddered at the thought and predicted the end of the world.

Well, we can put Armageddon to rest -- at least until 2012. The NCAA announced a new television deal on Thursday, unveiling a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting. Along with the new TV deal, it is expected that the NCAA will approve expanding the NCAA field to 68 teams -- three more than we have now.

The idea is thus: instead of having one opening-round game (or play-in game, as some call it), there would be four -- one for each region in the bracket. On paper, it's a wonderful thing -- and believe me when I say that I'm glad we're not looking at a 96-team monstrosity and brackets that take up two sheets of paper.

At least for now.

But the opening-round game has been fraught with problems since its inception in 2001. Under the current format, teams with automatic bid from low-major conferences -- the MEAC, SWAC, Patriot League, Big South, et al -- are relegated to the opening-round game, and if they win, they're rewarded with a blowout at the hands of a No. 1 seed.

Why are we putting automatic bid winners in the opening round game? Why do we reward a Hampton or an Arkansas-Pine Bluff for a season's worth of hard work and success with such a slap in the face?

This year, APB -- the SWAC champions -- and Big South champion Winthrop were the opening-round participants. APB won that game, before getting blasted in the first round by eventual national champion Duke.

Is that really how we want to reward conference champions?

If a team wins its conference's automatic bid, they deserve one of the first 63 slots -- not a date in Dayton, Ohio two nights before the true madness begins. The opening-round game -- now games -- should be reserved for bubble teams.

If I had my way, I would take the last four teams in and the last four teams out, pair them up and let them have it out in the four opening-round games. The winners would then be awarded No. 12 seeds -- since that's where most bubble teams that get into the field are slotted now anyway.

But don't make the opening-round game an excuse to weed out the low-major teams who did nothing more than play by the rules set out for them.

I'm glad expansion won't be as large as previously expected; as it stands, the NCAA Tournament is as close to perfection as we get in sports. If anything, the NCAA should focus on trying to fix a postseason formula that doesn't work -- the Bowl Championship Series in football -- instead of tinkering with something that doesn't really need fixing.

I will say this, though, the new TV deal will result in a better television product, because it will do away with the regional coverage that CBS featured. No more missing your favorite team's game if you're out of the coverage area, and no more leaving one game in favor of another. Under the new deal, games will be shown live, in their entirety, on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV.

There's also talk of CBS and TBS alternating the Final Four every year.

So all in all, Thursday was a good day for college hoops fans. A 96-team field might still be on the horizon, and I still have major reservations with regards to the opening-round games, but an expansion from 65 to 68 teams will create a more balanced tournament field, and will do little to affect what has turned into one of sports' greatest events.