Wednesday, March 31, 2010

let this be a warning to you

I didn't have any comment the first time this monster reared its ugly head, so it's time to seize that opportunity. The monster in question is the specter of NCAA tournament expansion, specifically the idea of exploding the tournament from 64 to 96 teams, brought into the forefront again by the revelation today that the commissioner of the Big Ten considers expansion of the tournament "probable."

Now, it's being widely reported that Jim Delany is referring to the big kahuna of 96, despite the fact that the question posed to him (at least as written in the original story there) has nothing to do with 96 teams and refers instead to "the expansion issue", which could mean quite a few different things. But the media is running with the 96 number that the NCAA floated a few weeks back. So I will too.

The response to the idea of 96 has been pretty much unanimous among those whose job, hobby, or preferred distraction is to opine about sports in whatever forum they have: they hate it. It is a universally condemned idea, and I'm not about to try and be the lone voice going against that crowd. I hate it too. The 64-team tournament (I do not acknowledge that the loser of the play-in game actually participated in the tournament) has a perfect symmetry to it. And more importantly, it still means something to make the tournament. For those of us in a power conference, it's the dividing line between a good and bad season. Chanting "N-I-T! N-I-T!" at a bubble team you don't particularly like is fun; replacing it with "Eight-teen-seed! Eight-teen-seed!" just doesn't sound the same, does it? When you talk about a tournament season, or "we've been to the tournament this many times this decade" or whatever, it loses a lot of meaning if it becomes that much easier to get in.

But I'm not here to talk about why I don't like a 96-team tournament. If I were, I'd go on for days. A little bit later, I do plan on assessing the possibilities for where this could go in the future, and some of the impossibilities too.

The obvious fact is, the NCAA doesn't give a shit what you or I think. There isn't a fan out there who would say, "oh yeah, the new name for the Peach Bowl is a big improvement." And besides, there are lots of other people on this soapbox, and when it comes down to it we all know - and so do they - that we're going to sop up like dogs whatever the NCAA throws out there. They could declare a 256-team tournament and we'd all be like, "Woo! Tournament!" once March rolls around. So what we think doesn't matter to them.

But that does bring me to the main point: People like tournaments, you see, and though the Official Platform Position of this blog is anti-playoff in football, your humble writer knows he's in the minority. And for that matter, accepts the likelihood that sometime in his lifetime, a playoff will exist. Now, there is a very sizable contingent among the very sizable pro-playoff crowd whose feelings about a football playoff run something like this: "I want a playoff, but I don't want to ruin the regular season, so I want a small one. Six or eight teams. This would allow the best teams to play for the title." Does that sound familiar? Do you or someone you know feel this way?

If the answer is yes, then I'm speaking directly to you. We all like the 64-team format in basketball. It's symmetrical, it's competitive, it's entertaining. Nobody wants to see it messed with by going to a 96-team monstrosity, but the NCAA doesn't care what you think and is seriously considering going to one anyway. As soon as next year, in fact. I will say this in big, bold, yellow, colorful, completely unmistakable letters - not to insult your reading or seeing capabilities, but so that nobody ever miscontrues what I'm saying:


This 96-team idea is the shot across your bow. I've said this before, I've been saying for the longest time, and I will continue to say it. The NCAA does not give a rat pellet about what's best for the competition. They care about the money. Money drives them. Let me restate what I said over a year ago:

Take a look at March Madness. You think it's got 65 teams because those are the best 65 teams in the land and they all have a great shot at the title? Hell no. It's 65 because the NCAA couldn't resist the awesome bracket-building, money-grubbing wonder of three weekends of March Madness, baby! It used to be 8 teams. Then it was 16. Then it was 20-some. Then 32. Then 48. Then 64. Then 65. And they're talking of expansion again! Your cute little perfect six team or eight team football bracket will not stay that way.
I warned you back then. I'm warning you now. And to whomever does not listen to these warnings, and thinks they can have a neat little eight-team bracket without having it balloon to an ugly and unrecognizable mess in the future, I will have no hesitation in saying I Told You So when the time comes.

The NCAA wants a 96 team tournament. If they don't do it this summer, they will do it eventually. Never underestimate the ability of the college presidents and conference commissioners and NCAA board to screw up a good thing if it's not bringing in enough cash. The same will happen with football, if they ever decide to shake up the bowl system. It might not happen immediately, but it will happen. If you want a football playoff but would be unhappy with a big one, now is a very good time to rethink.

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