By Luke Winn
April 22, 2010

No matter how glorious this past NCAA tournament was -- the thrilling opening day, Butler's inspiring run to a hometown Final Four, and a title game that was good to the last shot -- it was difficult to leave Indianapolis without the feeling that something horrible was on the horizon.

(By that, I don't mean back-to-back titles for Duke.)

Gordon Hayward's missed half-court heave was going to mark the end of the era of the 64/65-team tournament, as it gave way to a bloated bracket of 96. It was depressing to think that the most perfect postseason format in all of sports would be ruined for the sake of TV money, as the NCAA was opting out of its 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS, in hopes of a bigger deal with a CBS/Turner conglomerate or ESPN -- and only a 96-team format would lure in the cash needed to support the NCAA's other 87 championships.

Mega-expansion was looming because, on the day most of us arrived in Indy, March 31, Big Ten commissioner JimDelany told USA Today that 96 was "probable," and the following day at Lucas Oil Stadium, GregShaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, participated in a press conference in which the 96-team expansion concept was floated -- and had to be defended against some intense questioning. A majority of the media didn't like it. The public didn't want it. But it seemed inevitable. It seemed like the only way for the NCAA to get its money.

Yet on a Thursday afternoon exactly three weeks later, the NCAA held a teleconference to announce a new, 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting -- one that's based only on expansion to 68 teams, which likely means the addition of 16/17-seed play-in games in each region. The NCAA's Division I basketball committee made the recommendation for 68 in a meeting on Wednesday, and while it still has to be approved by the NCAA's board of directors on April 29, there's no way CBS and Turner would agree to a deal today without knowing the size of next year's bracket. "We are very comfortable with 68," CBS Sports and CBS News president SeanMcManus said. "It meets all our financial needs and programming needs."

More importantly, it represents a major victory for college basketball. The NCAA did the right thing. While I'd prefer a pure, 64-team format without play-in games, 68 teams is immensely more palatable than 96. The sanctity of the NCAA tournament has been preserved for the time being, and that's something to celebrate, even if JimIsch, the NCAA's interim president, admitted that 68 wasn't guaranteed to be the format for the length of the new TV deal. Isch said it was only 68 "for now," with other expansion options still on the table, and McManus added that CBS had the flexibility to "accommodate" expansion.

So this is something we may be revisiting before the deal ends in 2024. But, as Shaheen said, expansion is now something that's "exclusively at the NCAA's discretion" -- meaning that competition issues, not monetary issues, will determine the state of the NCAA tournament for the next 14 years. It has a better chance of staying at 68 now that TV money is secure. The NCAA will be getting approximately $771 million per year no matter what.

And fans will be getting a better tournament experience: Every single game will be available live on a combination of CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV (a heretofore little-known Turner-family network that had, as the main story on its Web site Thursday, a police-sting operation with the headline "No Urination Without Representation"). No more need to buy DirecTV packages or go online to view simultaneous games -- something that had become absurd in an era where cable TV plans include hundreds of channels. Betting pools, the driving force behind the mainstream popularity of tournament (even though the NCAA will never acknowledge that), won't have to be overhauled; they can stay close to their current format, either ignoring the play-in games or adding four lines, and still fit the bracket on one sheet of paper.

The losses are far less significant than the gains. BCS-conference coaches who championed tournament expansion as a way to maintain job security -- and a way to avoid playing decent nonconference schedules -- will weep. When the NCAA decides on the new 68-team format this summer, we'll find out which teams will take the biggest hit: Will the weakest automatic qualifiers -- the current Nos. 15 and 16 seeds -- be pushed into play-in games, or will the last few at-larges (in an idea that colleague Andy Glockner floated on Twitter) be grouped together in death matches to feed into 12- or 11-seed spots?

My biggest concern in a 16/17 play-in game model wouldn't be for the teams in that game; it would be that the Murray States (a No. 13 in the 2010 bracket) and Cornells (No. 12) of the world would get pushed down a rung in the bracket, making upsets less likely. Protecting the prime upset pairings of mid-majors vs. majors -- in the 5-12 and 4-13 spots -- should be a priority. To that end, the at-large death matches, between teams like Minnesota and Illinois, would be best-off feeding into the 11-seed holes, where the lowest major-conference teams were slotted this year.

That's the next thing we need to campaign for, and who knows, maybe the NCAA will listen. Public reaction had to have played at least some role in the NCAA settling on 68 rather than 96. The public's response to the 96 idea was overwhelmingly negative, and I wonder if Isch, Shaheen, CBS and Turner didn't want to be regarded as the villains who ruined college sports' crown jewel. Fans' love for the current format -- or something close to the current format -- also enhances its value, something that the networks no doubt also considered in the process of committing to fork over $10.8 billion.

I also don't doubt that there were more powerful figures who influenced this deal. At the Final Four, a source with knowledge of the expansion process told me that Shaheen believed the timing of Delany's "probable" remark was calculated, as a possible effort to drum up anti-expansion chatter in the media. Conference commissioners wanted a say in the process, because a 96-team NCAA tournament would have devalued their regular-season and conference-tournament TV products. Some of that sentiment was clear at the BCS meetings in Phoenix on Thursday, where Big East commissioner JohnMarinatto said of the 68-team model, "It's not diluted the brand, and that's very important."

The brand, or even the spirit, of the NCAA tournament, is about a few things: Exclusivity, in that it takes a strong season -- or a conference-tourney championship -- to earn your way into the field; excitement, especially the rush of the opening Thursday and Friday; and fairy tales, in that we yearn, every year, for a George Mason-like story. The NCAA preserved that brand on Thursday. Sixty-eight maintains the prestige of a bid to the dance, it protects the magic of the opening rounds, and it means the next George Mason won't need to play five games to reach the Final Four.

Eventually, we'll get back to worrying about how Isch left the expansion door open by saying two words: "for now." But for now, at least, we can rejoice. The NCAA tournament has been saved.

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