NY Sports Day

For the NCAA Tourney, 68 is Just Great

April 22, 2010, Earth Day. It wasn’t the day the world was saved, but it may go down as the day the greatest event in all of sports was spared from needless ruin.

The recently completed 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was played under the widely assumed specter that it would be the last such tournament before expansion to 96 teams would occur as early as next season. Yet, along came an unexpected, lucrative television deal on Thursday morning to save college basketball as we know it.

With more than 95 percent of its total revenue emanating from TV broadcast rights to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, the NCAA was in strong pursuit of a way to increase its monetary returns, and the organization was hoping to capitalize on a potential bidding war between CBS Sports and ESPN.

The NCAA’s hope was that CBS would opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion deal by July 31st, clearing the way for CBS to either outbid ESPN in keeping a 65-team field, or for ESPN to spend even more on televising all games in an expanded 96-team field. Throughout last season, the NCAA tournament seemed destined for the latter of the two scenarios.

Foolishly, the NCAA saw only the dollar signs, despite the fact that nearly every poll released, revealed that more than 80 percent of college basketball fans were against expansion to 96 teams.

Thankfully –- for all sane college basketball fans everywhere –- with the addition of another TV partner, the NCAA tournament will expand, but only by three teams, to the perfect number of 68 teams.

The NCAA announced on Thursday, a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting that will begin next March, when CBS will start broadcasting the tournament in conjunction with Turner’s channels, TNT, TBS, and truTV, through 2024.

You’ve heard of a win-win situation? Well, this is a win-win-win (sorry ESPN, you’re the sole loser in this deal, but it’s hard to have sympathy knowing that a 96-team tournament would have been a huge mistake).

CBS, along with Turner, win their contract; the NCAA gets the revenue it sought; and, most importantly, the most exciting sporting event in the world isn’t sabotaged for fans as a result of money and greed. As an added bonus, every game of the tournament will be broadcast live nationally for the first time in the tournament’s 73-year history.

It’s ironic that the date on which we’re all encouraged to “go green” the most, was the same one that another “green” which was driving tournament expansion to 96 teams, ultimately yielded the perfect tournament of 68 teams.

However we got there, sensible college basketball fans everywhere are now breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Everything that’s been great about the NCAA tournament to date figured to be undone in a 96-team field. Imagine ninth-seeded Northern Iowa, instead of beating eighth-seeded UNLV and knocking out the tournament’s overall top seed Kansas in the second round (as it did in March), instead losing in a lackluster fashion by double digits to Kansas because it would have run out of gas after beating the 24 seed and UNLV before playing Kansas, all within the span of less than a week in a 96-team setup.

Consider too, how many undeserving and uninspiring teams would have competed in a severely watered-down tournament of that size.

A 96-team field also would have rendered much of the regular season and exciting conference tournament finishes (such as Kentucky’s thrilling overtime SEC final win over bubble team Mississippi State in March) a lot more meaningless.

And, a by-product of a 96-team field would have likely meant the end of the NIT. While that tournament has become merely the consolation to the NCAA tournament, it’s still quite valuable for many teams that play in it, and it’s too steeped in rich tradition and history to simply do away with it (as evidenced by the sheer jubilation of Dayton players, coaches, and fans after Dayton, which has the second most NIT appearances in history, captured this year’s NIT title).

With the new TV deal, all of the above worries are gone. The tournament keeps its same basic structure which has made the event as great as it has been for decades, and adding the additional three teams –- if it’s done right — would make the tournament even better than it’s been.

In any given year, there are usually no more than three or four bubble teams with real, legitimate gripes about being left out of the field of 65. Thus, a field of 68 would be an improvement, and would actually represent the ideal number of teams to be included.

The suspected plan is that the NCAA would replace the current play-in game between the two lowest seeded teams in the tournament with four play-in games on the Tuesday before the first-round games.

The 64/65 play-in game was always unfair anyway, since the teams participating in that game were the only two entries forced to play their way into the tournament twice. All other automatic qualifiers via conference tournament wins would automatically receive bids to play in the first round of the tournament. It should be that way for what used to be the 64th and 65th teams, as well.

Hopefully, Thursday’s announcement isn’t simply an intermediary step toward an eventual field of 96 teams. With the new deal running for 14 years, there’s plenty of time for a field of 68 to be proven as the ultimate possible setup.

The deal reached by the NCAA, CBS, and Turner assures that at least for the foreseeable future, the right number of teams will be selected.

Now, to make the entire postseason — including the men’s NCAA tournament and the men’s NIT –- the NCAA needs just one last step: have the four play-in games played throughout the day on the Tuesday prior to the first round, with one play-in game in each region, at noon, 3pm, 6pm, and 9pm EST; the last four bubble teams in against what would have been the first four bubble teams out under the old system, with one game per region; the winners get the four 12 seeds, the losers get the four top seeds in the NIT. That would yield perfect postseason arrangement.

Whether or not the NCAA does exactly that with the early part of the men’s NCAA tournament or with the NIT remains to be seen. Regardless, the main thing is that at least for a while, that which could have been the ruination of all that has made March Madness so special, pleasantly surprised by making the best sporting in existence, even better.


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