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Should the NCAA Tournament expand its field?

As TV executives continue to meddle with college athletics, the NCAA might have no choice if it wants to protect the future of March Madness

The question has floated around college sports for years, but now more than ever, the NCAA might have to expand the men's and women's college basketball postseason tournaments sooner rather than later.

The idea was seriously considered back in January when the NCAA's transformation committee recommended that 25% of teams in sports with 200 participating schools should be allowed to compete in championship events. In college basketball, that would expand the NCAA Tournament field from 68 to 96. But the proposal never got off the ground, as the committee admitted to discussing a potential expansion but no decisions were officially made as of July.

That all took place well before a tidal wave of conference realignment washed away the Pac-12 and sent a handful of West Coast schools to the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC. 

Not only do 16- and 18-team conferences pose scheduling headaches for athletic departments, but they also make the NCAA selection committee's job that much more difficult. As leagues begin to consolidate, the use of advanced metrics to determine seeding will have to be weighed differently than in years past. The RPI, NET and KenPom arguably favor bigger programs over mid-majors already, and that notion will continue in a world with mega-conferences.

Iowa is a great example. The Hawkeyes finished 19-14, ranked 38th in the NET and earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But of their 14 Quad 1 games, 10 of them were in the Big Ten. Penn State and West Virginia similarly benefitted from playing the cream of the crop in their respective conferences. It's difficult for mid-majors to secure at-large bids when 32 of the 36 awarded go to Power 5 schools, as was the case last season. 

"It's going to be even more challenging for a lot of mid-major programs and leagues to get multiple bids," said former Gonzaga All-American guard Dan Dickau on the Gonzaga Nation podcast.

As conferences bloat, there won't be enough room for all the bluebloods and Cinderellas in the 68-team field. The Power 5 schools won't like the sound of that, so to remedy that, they turn toward the first opportunity they think can make them some money — postseason expansion.

On Monday, Fox Sports announced it is in the process of creating a college basketball postseason tournament that would take place after the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight round. The field would consist of 16 teams from the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12. And because the three leagues have TV contracts with Fox Sports, teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament will be forced to play in the alternative tournament.

"This is an absolute attack on mid-major programs," Dickau said. "It's disgusting. You shouldn't play in your own, created postseason tournament because you're in a Power 5 conference."

Newly appointed NCAA commissioner Charlie Baker pushed back on the idea when it was first brought up last season, but Fox Sports has made headway on establishing a new postseason that would certainly diminish the NIT, CBI and other tournaments.

"It's going to destroy the NIT tournament and it's going to create an even bigger gap between your haves and have-nots in college athletics," Dickau said.

Even without football, the Gonzaga men's basketball brand has far exceeded that of any mid-major in the country. But an exclusive postseason without an expanded NCAA Tournament field isn't a good recipe for the rest of the West Coast Conference.

Landing high-profile nonconference games has helped boost Gonzaga's stature in recent seasons, but that's not easy to accomplish for the rest of the league. Depending on how each conference schedules its games, it will be even harder for WCC schools to get Quad 1 and Quad 2 games if Power 5 programs are even more focused on their own ranking. With fewer bids to go around, there are fewer pathways to the NCAA Tournament that don't require winning the conference outright. 

And if Fox Sports has its way, the value of playing in the NIT also decreases if it essentially becomes a tournament for mid-major programs.

The NCAA has a lot to consider before its next meeting in October. Many have pushed back the idea of expanding in the past, but for the sake of the most iconic and unique tournament in U.S. sports, it could be the NCAA's only answer to keeping it all together.