Tournament Expansion Reaction

I’ll be up front. I don’t like the idea of expanding March Madness. But it seems inevitable, given the money involved. Dana O’Neil digested the spin-job presented by the NCAA’s Greg Shaheen, who explained how a 96-team would work.

The convoluted plan goes like this: The tournament would begin on a Thursday or Friday, as it always does, but only teams seeded 33 through 96 would play on those days. The winners would face teams 1 through 32 on Saturday or Sunday.

The winners of those games advance to the second round, to be played on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Sweet 16 continuing Thursday and Friday, as always.

In other words, if we had had a 96-team bracket this season, ninth-seeded Northern Iowa would have been playing its third game in six days when it squared off against top-seeded Kansas.

Hero Ali Farokhmanesh would have been playing on Gumby legs.

And yet the NCAA insists that 96 teams won’t change a thing, when logic says it will change everything.

All right, that’s how it would look (ugly) — how to people feel about this idea?

Dana O’Neil, ESPN: The NCAA best hire one helluva public-relations firm to promote the drivel that will be the regular season, because all of those great nonconference games that dot the calendar in November and December are going to disappear. What good does it do a national program like Kentucky or North Carolina to play a tough nonleague game? A few patsies, one or two traditional rivalries, a respectable run through the SEC or the ACC, and you’re in. Consider: The Tar Heels would be in a 96-team field this year. Connecticut, too. Easily. And yet the NCAA doesn’t like the term “watered-down” to describe a potential expanded field. Perhaps “diluted” is more palatable?

Ben Doody, The Trentonian: But the tournament will lose a lot of its appeal if it gives 32 teams a bye while the other 64 have to play on the first day. One of the charming things about the tournament as its presently constituted is that Kansas needs to play the same number of games to win the tournament as Robert Morris — that on the first day, upsets like Ohio over Georgetown are possible. This is corny but entirely true: Those upsets give the tournament charm, and that charm is the reason casual sports fans — or better yet, people not even interested in sports — become college basketball fans in March. Expanding the tournament has the potential to turn away those fans in droves, yielding the NCAA’s TV partner — whether its CBS, ESPN or someone else — lower ratings. That could easily mean that by the time it’s time to negotiate the next tournament TV deal, the value of the deal will be less than it would have with a 65-team field… College basketball’s regular season is already under siege from critics for having little significance. If a team like North Carolina can have its most disappointing season in decades and STILL make the NCAA tournament, critics will rightly argue that at least as it pertains to successful teams from power conferences, what goes on between November and February will be a string of exhibition games.

Eamonn Brennan, ESPN College Basketball Nation Blog: In the end, whether or not expansion is eventually seen as a success will depend on one major outcome: Whether people watch the new first-round games. And I don’t mean you, the college basketball sports blog reader, or me, the college basketball sports blogger. I mean the casual fan: The guy who fills out a few brackets every year but doesn’t really freak out about it. The group that sneaks out of the cube farm and heads down to the local bar at lunchtime on Thursday because it looks like Villanova is going to get upset by a No. 15-seed. Dolores, the woman who keeps photos of her cats on her desk. Will those people watch? Or will the NIT-level play on hand — and the less immediately shocking nature of potential first-round upsets — turn them away, souring them on the tournament in general? Whether we eventually view expansion as a disaster (from both a financial and entertainment standpoint) or as another worthy step in the tournament’s long evolution will depend entirely on this new first round.

Dan Shanoff: The essential qualities of the NCAA Tournament — rather than some arbitrary number — are born out by the fact that the Tournament has expanded from 8 to 16 to 32 to 48 to 64 to 65. And I’m sure the pundits either have — or would have — complained all along the way. In vain. … The reality is that most fans don’t pay attention to college basketball until March anyway. And, aside from the die-hard fans who make up about 5 percent of the fans who follow March Madness, those that do tune in before March are watching marquee games between powerhouse teams whose inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field isn’t in doubt. If anything, people watch before March to get a sneak peek of teams they should be betting on IN March. And with 32 more teams, that means that fans who want to know the field have to watch that much regular-season basketball. Meanwhile, the chance to earn a bye gets expanded beyond the four 1-seeds to the Top 32 teams in the country — something worth playing for in January and February. … Let’s see: If Ohio can beat Georgetown, I’d be curious how the 8 teams that finished ahead of Ohio in the MAC might do. Most early-round NCAA games aren’t exactly pretty basketball played at high levels; they’re street fights. Let’s go back to the foundational point: As long as games are close at the finish or won on buzzer-beaters or feature seed upsets or “no-name” schools beating “name” schools, fans will be happy. And that will happen frequently — perhaps more often, given the general parity between teams ranked between 1 and 100.

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