The College Basketball Notebook

April 7, 2010 11:11 AM

The Pros & Cons Of 96

The odds look pretty good that next year's NCAA Tournament will be a 96-team affair. The NCAA has the option to opt out of its current contract with CBS and take the tournament onto the open market. Tacking on 30 additional games for television will surely bring bigger rights fees, and no sports entity has ever said no to that. In this format, 64 teams will begin play on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday. The winners would advance to face the top 32 (seeds 1-8 in each region), who would get byes into the Thursday/Friday spot. Essentially, the first week would be jammed-packed with three rounds, and still pare the field to the Sweet 16 by the end of Sunday.

Reaction has been heavily against the expansion, with the exception of the coaches. The primary thrusts of argument, both pro and con are heaped in exaggeration. To hear opponents, tinkering with the field is on a par with burning the flag. To hear coaches, this is all about giving kids extra opportunities, as though a scholarship athlete at a top-flight institution who doesn't play in the Big Dance is leading an impoverished life for it. I have mixed feelings on the subject, but as you can tell, neither of the primary arguments have registered much a chord with me.

As to the argument that expanding the field waters down the regular season...please spare me. For people who only care about who wins the national championship (an important qualifer) this is already the most meaningless regular season this side of Gary Bettman. No team with a serious chance at contending has the slightest doubt they will be in the field from the moment the ball is tipped in November. Compare that even to baseball. Teams like the Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies expect to be in the playoffs, but there's at least a little bit of doubt. How many times did the thought of Duke or Kentucky missing the Dance ever cross anyone's mind? Whether we debate which sixth-place power conference mediocirty should get in, or which eighth-place power conference mediocrity should get in will have little impact on my view of the regular season.

Then when we get to the tournament, the NCAAs give the least rewards to their regular season leaders than any other sport. There is no homecourt advantage. Unlike the NFL, there are no first-round byes, something that gives matchups between powers enormous significance in pro football, but is non-existent in college hoops. The NCAA also does not re-seed the bracket after each round, meaning it's no guarantee that being a #1 seed is going to be more advantageous than being a #2, once the bracket shakes out.

I care about the regular season, and readers know I devoted all the ink here since November to talking about who would win conference championships or league tournaments, because I believe those are significant achievments in of themselves. But if all you care about is who cuts down the nets at the end, the regular season has little to offer you already, so changing the format isn't going to hurt.

I'm intrigued by the 96-team format precisely because it does offer byes to the top eight seeds in each region. This still isn't going to impact who wins the national championship--Villanova in 1985 was the only team to come out of an 8-9 game in the first round and win it all, but it might impact who makes the Sweet 16. It might restrict the ability of mediocre power conference teams to catch lightning in a bottle for one week, win a couple games and then to have to hear the media crowing about how they proved they belong, or some other nonsense. If you take an #11 seed or #12 seed and make them win three games in five days to advance, the accomplishment might mean a little something. The desire of teams to avoid playing on Tuesday night would enhance the end of the regular season.

That's the positives. I count two negatives. The first has been addressed at length in mainstream debate, and that's what would happen to the office pool phenomena. I don't think it would kill the office pool, but it would hurt it. Having just two days to do your picks, and tacking on 30 games to pick isn't going to encourage non-basketball fans to participate. And it'll be a pain for those of us who do follow the sport all year long too. The other negative is the tendency to push any change in format to its logical conclusion. What I mean by that is this--once the tournament expands to playing on Tuesday night, how long will the NCAA let 32 teams--it's best 32--sit idly by while the television cameras are rolling? It would probably take 7-10 years, but it seems to me that once you open up the floodgate by having teams play early in the week, it's only a matter of time before everyone is playing that early. Which means a 128-team field. Which strips away all the advantages of 96.

My conclusion--96 has its upside, but on balance the negatives still outweigh the positives and I am hoping against hope this idea disappears.

The College Basketball Notebook will also disappear for a few months, but the action will going steady in other branches of The Notebook Family. Baseball will be updated at least five times a week from now until the last out of the World Series. And with this being the month of spring practice and the NFL draft, we'll have some brief overviews on both the Pro & College Football Notebook. The first of those will be up later today at each site.

And if you're just a college hoops fan, be sure to bookmark and come back in November! Congrats to Duke and hope to see you all over in the other parts of the Notebook.

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