Open field: For now, the NCAA Tournament is set at 68 teams after a summer of expansion talk
Gene Smith subscribed to the idea that less is more in expanding the field for the NCAA Tournament. The chairman of college basketball’s biggest event couldn’t see the benefit of opening it up to 96 teams. For Smith, that’s just too many.
For the NCAA, it’s too bad not everyone saw it that way. Life would have been much easier.
After months of debating the issue, with coaches and athletic directors airing their thoughts weighing the pros and cons, the NCAA opted to expand the tournament from 65 to 68 teams. It was the outcome of a long process of going back and forth between whether it should go to 68 or 96. The mere mention of the number 96 brought out the most heated arguments among fans, while coaches typically supported it.
So 68 it was. Expand a little, not too much.
‘I think it was the right choice,’ Smith, also the athletic director at Ohio State, said. ‘We thought it was important to put 96 out there to discuss its merits.’
Some saw those merits, others saw no way 96 had any at all. There lies the debate.
The question of how many teams to let into the tournament took control of college basketball discussions across America.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was always at the forefront of that debate. His view has always been that the point of the tournament was to allow all the good teams in college basketball to get a chance at winning it all. With better teams should come more spots, Boeheim said.
‘I’m really tired of these experts saying that there are no teams that are good enough, that they’re all mediocre,’ Boeheim said. ‘Just because you have good balance doesn’t mean they’re mediocre. It means they’re balanced.’
The NCAA reached a compromise between the views of Boeheim, who was in favor of a 96-team field, and others who didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broke. Even coaches who were firm advocates of letting more teams in were satisfied with the outcome. If it meant even just a few more teams would get the opportunity to escape the NIT and compete with the best, they were all for it.
‘I’m in favor of 68 as opposed to 96,’ Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. ‘The quality of play, the depth of college basketball is much better.
But the decision to go to 68 called for more than just listening to what coaches thought about the situation. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a large part of what even began the debate came down to one thing: money. Specifically, money brought in from television revenue.
The NCAA opted out of its contract with CBS during the spring, when ESPN announced it had plans to make a proposal to buy the TV rights. But instead of accepting ESPN’s proposal, the NCAA signed a new 14-year contract worth $10.8 billion with both CBS and Turner Sports. That new deal allows four networks to air live games — CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV.
‘It provides a unique platform,’ Smith said. ‘They can work together and take advantages of those platforms. It’s a marriage of two great companies. TBS brings in that cable power.’
No matter what it comes down to, money or not, one thing was clear: Expanding to 96 teams was the point of contention. All the possible problems that would come with it were raised. Everything from attendance at regular season games to the players missing too many classes with what would be an increased number of rounds.
But the biggest issue was that it might have ‘watered down’ college basketball, said the critics of expansion. Opponents to the idea figured that if it went to 96 teams, why not just let anyone in? Teams would have less incentive to create a competitive regular season schedule. And then there might be some teams that don’t really deserve to be in the tournament at all.
‘If you open it to 96, there would be some teams that would be mediocre.’ Smith said. The competition for the championship should be the elite of the elite.’
Smith’s opinion stood in complete contrast to the opinions of many coaches. And perhaps no one would have disagreed more than Boeheim. Since the talk of expansion started, Boeheim has been one of the most outspoken proponents of opening up the tournament.
Ninety-six teams wouldn’t have been a problem for Boeheim. That just means that instead of 64 or 68 good teams, there’d be 96. For many coaches, Boeheim included, the parity of college basketball was all the evidence needed to prove that expansion was necessary.
There’s simply more teams that have chances at getting to the Final Four.
‘I think there are 96 good teams,’ Boeheim said. ‘And if they’re not good teams, they’d get beat in the first round, and you’ll be down to 64 anyway. That’s a fallacious argument, it makes no sense.’
Many of those who were opposed to expanding to 96 simply did not want to see the tournament get changed. But what they forget, Boeheim said, is that every time the tournament was expanded, it only got better — not worse.
‘When they expanded it from 16 to 32, it got better. 32 to 48, it got better,’ Boeheim said. ’48 to 64, it got better. So why’s it going to get worse? That’s nonsense.’
Not nonsense to some. There was still concern that too much expansion would bring too many ramifications for the conference tournaments. If 96 teams would be let in, then the significance of winning the conference would lessen. If the significance lessened, so would the attendance.
Though coaches understood that side of the argument, they still preferred expansion. And for the most part, coaches across college basketball agreed with Boeheim’s opinion. All agreed that there were more good teams that should get the chance to participate.
‘There are a lot of really good teams, not a lot of great teams,’ Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg said. ‘They should all get a chance to play. I think 68 is a starting point, but I’m not saying 96 was right.’
For now, that’s all 68 will be — a starting point. There are no plans to expand anything further just yet. The NCAA found a way to appease both sides of the argument. Expand, but not too much. Sixty-eight was the number that all the conferences could agree on.
The NCAA expects to go with 68 for the near future, but there’s no guarantee that at some point, there couldn’t be greater expansion. But until that point, whenever that might be, there will be no more debate about too much expansion or just some expansion. All of that is settled. All of that is over.
For now, less is more has won out.
‘It’ll be at 68 for a while,’ Smith said. ‘You’re always going to have people that want expansion, but the intensity of those discussions won’t occur. We need to allow it to progress with 68.’
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