Expanding The NCAA Tournament to 96 Teams: That's March Madness

Last fall, the NCAA began discussions regarding a change to the men's basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness. This is currently a 65-team tournament. Win or out. And it determines the best college basketball team in the country. It's a huge moneymaker for the schools and the NCAA. Cities throughout the country vie to host games in the tournament -- Houston is hosting this year's Southeast Regional and next year's Final Four.  

The change the NCAA is discussing is an expansion in the number of teams included in the tourney. Some discussions put the number at 68. Others put the expansion to 96 teams, which would bring about an end to the NCAA-owned NIT Tournament.  

The arguments for the expansion are simple. More teams make for more upsets. Everyone loves the upsets.  psets and Cinderella teams are among the biggest selling points to the tournament -- replays of the final shot where NC State upsets the Houston Cougars in 1983 will soon start to dominate CBS sports coverage. The expansion of teams will also add some importance to the regular season as the expansion will allow the teams that win their conferences to be rewarded with an automatic bid instead of just the teams that win the conference tournaments. And the biggest reason is that a bigger tournament means that more schools from the mid-major tournaments can get in, which thus sets the stage for more giant killing in the tournament.

These are the primary stated reasons. But they're not the real reasons. There are two issues driving this proposed expansion: jobs and money.  

Unless a coach does something really stupid, he's not going to lose his job if he takes his team in the tournament. But a coach can get fired if he makes the NIT. Which is the reason why the expansion is getting the support of the likes of Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K's not in any danger of losing his job, but some of his friends are, and a tournament expanded to 96 teams means additional jobs are saved.  

While the NCAA currently has a contract for six billion dollars a year from CBS, the NCAA can opt out of that contract following this season. An expanded tournament gives the NCAA a reason to opt out and request new bidding that will result in a lot more money, especially if ESPN gets in on the bidding.  

The losers in all of this will be the fans, because the fans will be stuck with an awful, watered-down product that will often resemble last Saturday's UH/Southern Mississippi game. This expanded tournament won't award outstanding regular-season play. It will award mediocre regular-season play. Especially if that mediocre regular-season play comes from a team in one of the so-called major conferences. There are currently 347 Division One teams playing basketball, and one of the reasons that March Madness is so successful is that only good teams get to take part, unlike college football where 68 of the 120 teams in the BCS football division get to play in mostly unmatchable bowl games.

The reward for being a good mid-major team in college football means that you're shut out of any chance of playing for the title. In fact, most good teams are denied a chance to play for the title. But the current NCAA tournament rewards good teams and punishes the mediocre teams because the mediocre teams have trouble getting into the tourney.  

With an expanded tournament, why should a major conference team worry about winning its conference when it can just beat a bunch of no-names in non-conference play and play break-even while in conference? Then it just argues about how tough the conference is and that it deserves a pass for that reason. We already see this every year about this time as people begin arguing that teams like Louisville, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech deserve to get in the tournament despite awful play in the conference. And with an expanded tournament, teams like this get rewarded for being mediocre instead of having an incentive to actually play good basketball.

The NCAA's not going to listen to me. Nobody else does, so why should they bother? But if they do go to 96 teams, it's just not going to be the same thing. Which is a shame, because those three weeks of March Madness are often among the best weeks in sports every year.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal