Bracket Bluster

Expanding the NCAA tournament field to 96 teams would take much of the Madness out of March
January 18, 2010

When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski announced last month that he endorsed the idea of expanding the NCAA tournament from 65 to 96 teams, he gave the bigger-is-better bandwagon instant credibility. Don't laugh: Expanding the tournament field is a real possibility, not least because the NCAA can opt out of its $6 billion contract with CBS after this season and drum up even more revenue with (what else?) more tournament games on, say, ESPN. Coach K gave another reason too. "I don't think we put enough value on the regular season," he argued. "By expanding to [96 teams]—and not having the NIT—you reward everybody who wins [during] the regular season."

Krzyzewski's proposal would award automatic NCAA bids to the winners of not only conference tournaments but also the leagues' regular-season champs—a change that would reward sustained excellence in January and February. (Ten such teams were omitted from last year's field.) Proponents of NCAA tournament expansion (including coaches such as Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech) also argue that more games produce more excitement, too many good teams are left out, there hasn't been significant expansion since 1985 and a 96-team tournament will allow more coaches to keep their jobs.

It's enough to make expansion sound appealing, at least until you look more closely and realize it's the sort of nonsense that could ruin one of America's greatest sporting events. Here's why this plan is a bad idea:

• A three-week tournament is long enough. The expanded version would turn into a 95-game slog that would last a month—and viewer fatigue would set in.

• Expansion would water down the field. The 65-team tournament already has too many mediocre teams from the six major conferences. Why add more? There simply aren't another 31 deserving teams out there. Earning an NCAA berth should be an achievement, not a participation award.

• The beauty of the tournament is its egalitarianism. The big boys play the little guys on neutral courts (for once), and there are no byes. A 96-team bracket would introduce first-round byes for the top 32 seeds.

• Expansion would ruin Selection Sunday. Barroom debate is the lifeblood of sports passion, which explains why bubble and bracketology have become household terms. If 96 golden tickets are issued, those arguments would be over.

• Who wants to fill out a 96-team bracket? The NCAA may treat gambling like the plague, but let's be honest: Office pools have fueled the tournament's mainstream popularity. Will Doris in accounting really have the stomach to fill out an unwieldy 96-team bracket?

Ultimately, expanding the tournament would be beneficial for two groups: networks (more money) and coaches (more job security). But it would be a disaster for the fans and for the sport itself, a classic example of creating too much of a good thing.

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PHOTOG FIUME/GETTY IMAGES (MARYLAND)HIGH ANXIETY Tracking potential bubble teams such as Maryland and Xavier is what makes Selection Sunday must-see TV. PHOTOFRANK VICTORES/US PRESSWIRE (XAVIER)[See caption above]

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