ALL THIS TALK about NCAA tournament expansion? Forget about it.
First of all, it is not going to happen because college presidents will not let it happen. Additionally, it is a bad idea, one that can't even be justified by boatloads of additional money from TV networks.
The NCAA tournament has operated with 64 or 65 teams since 1985. It rightfully has claimed to be one of the most exciting events in all of sports. No other event captures the undivided attention of its fan base in addition to appealing to non-fans like the NCAA tournament.
Television ratings on CBS soar. Office bracket pools are as much a part of the sports landscape as bets on the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.
So why consider messing with a good thing? It's simple: money.
The NCAA holds the right to back out of the final three years of an 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS. That deal is slated to pay the NCAA $2.1 billion from 2011 through 2013. CBS apparently is concerned about how to handle the back-loaded payments in a sagging economy.
Turner Sports and CBS want to partner and present a 14-year deal to the NCAA that would increase exponentially the annual payout, according to SportsBusiness Journal. The same publication reported that ESPN/ABC and Fox also want to put lucrative, long-term bids on the table.
To increase interest and advertising dollars, the TV networks want to expand the tournament field to include as many as 96 teams. The most glaring problems that come with tournament expansion are the logistics of keeping it within a three-week schedule and the watering down of the field.
The tournament begins following conference tournaments and ends before the Masters.. Tournament games are played Thursday through Sunday the first two weeks, followed by the Final Four on Saturday and Monday.
To squeeze an additional 16 games into the mix would mean playing the first two rounds on Monday and Tuesday. That never would wash with university presidents, who complain about the tournament causing players to miss far too many days of class.
Under the current format, if a team plays on Thursday and Saturday in the first two rounds, it misses classes from Wednesday through Friday. By playing earlier in the week, players could miss an entire week of school.
This is not the time for college basketball to propose more missed class time, not when its athletes annually record among the lowest GPAs - and poorest graduation rates - of any sport.
One of the reasons college presidents reject any thought of a college football playoff system is the probability of increased time away from campus for athletes. There is no way presidents will buy the same exchange for college basketball.
From the presidents' standpoint, the NCAA can wait until the TV contract with CBS expires to negotiate a new one. Perhaps by then colleges and their coaches will be able to boast of increased GPAs and more respectable graduation rates.
One of the beauties of the tournament is the select field that participates in it every season. Unlike the bowl system, which rewards mediocrity, only those teams that excel qualify for the tournament.
"I think you can do it in such a way you can maintain a quality tournament," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday on the SEC's weekly teleconference. "There are way, way too many teams not making the tournament.
"How can South Carolina win 10 games in the SEC last year and finish in a tie for first (in the SEC East) and not make the NCAA tournament? ... That's not fair for the kind of year they had. There's no way a team like that should be excluded."
Actually, USC's exclusion was part of why the tournament is so spectacular. The NCAA tournament selection committee rightfully determined that USC did not play a strong nonconference schedule and was successful in a weak conference. Now that the SEC is much stronger, if USC goes 10-6 in the league this season after beefing up its nonconference schedule, it will undoubtedly earn a spot in the tournament.
If truth be known, USC was among 332 teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament a season ago. That's because all but the eight Ivy League schools and seven independent programs participate in conference tournaments, with the champion automatically qualifying for the big tournament.
Essentially, the conference tournaments create an extended NCAA tournament field.
That is why I never have understood programs that complain about being left out of the tournament. In almost every case, the team voicing the complaint missed multiple opportunities to make the NCAA field, including its conference tournament.
As it works, the NCAA includes only champions and teams that produce outstanding regular seasons. By adding 31 teams to the mix, the field would be diluted greatly, and interest in the early rounds would dwindle drastically.
Play it smart. Keep it the way it is.
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