The NCAA, according to several reports, will expand its mens’ basketball tournament from 64 (or 65) to 68 teams starting next year.
Until this year, 63 teams, technically speaking, would receive either an automatic or at large bid to the tournament. The automatic bid would come as a result of winning a conference tournament; at large bids were extended to teams not winning their conference, but whose regular season record and schedule was strong enough to be included.
Two other teams would receive an invitation to a ‘play-in’ game, making the tournament a full 64 teams.
In recent months, there was considerable talk about expanding the tournament to 96 teams. As with most things in big time sports, the primary motivation for expanding the tournament to that level would have been based on money. With networks looking for programming that appeals to a large number of people in many desirable demographics, an expanded NCAA tournament would have provided just that.
The problem, however, with expanding much past the current size would be that it would lessen the importance of the regular season even further. As it stands, its is rare that a team less than an eighth or ninth seed (or a team ranked somewhere in the near 35 or 36 in the country) would advance to the Final Four.
The great mythology about the NCAA tournament is that so called ‘Cinderella’ teams have a chance to upset powerhouses. The record simply does not support that. A 16 seed has never between a number one seed, for example, and only once has a 15 seed beaten a number two. As it stands today, many teams that really have no realistic shot of advancing to the Final Four make the tournament. If the tournament had expanded all the way to 96 teams, by definition, another 32 teams with almost no chance of advancing would have been included. Actions like this are what sometimes help kill the proverbial golden goose in sports.
While 64 teams seemed optimal, 68 will have relatively little negative impact. The extra couple of games will provide some level of programming that the NCAA’s television partners want (this announcement came on the day when a new 14 year deal was announced with CBS and Turner Sports) without diluting the tournament to any significant degree. While the exact format is not yet determined, and the number needs to be approved by the NCAA’s Board of Directors, it looks to be a done deal.
Another 32 teams, however, would have killed the NIT tournament, made making the NCAA tournament much less an achievement, and devalued the regular season. An extra four teams will do none of those things and is a good compromise for the networks and college basketball fans.
Source: Fox Sports, “NCAA Got It Right on Tourney Expansion”, foxnews.com