Alright, so if you're not already used to the idea of a 96-team tournament that will no longer allow you to fit your office bracket onto one page, you might as well get there. I don't care what the NCAA says about no decision being made, they're either lying or they mean they haven't figured out whether to roll to the press conference in white Hummer stretch limos or red Ferrari ones. With rims.
Yes, we're assuming here that the decision has been made. Because you know you hate it, they know you hate it, you know you'll lap up every second of it anyway, and they know you'll lap up every second of it anyway. And because it's not entirely evil. Oh, don't get me wrong. Yes, it's all about money and nothing else; yes, it'll even further de-emphasize the regular season; yes, it'll screw up the symmetry that makes the tournament such a great event; yes, yes, yes, it'll make a sloppy disaster of college basketball. But which is the more distasteful decision: chopping a whole bunch of non-revenue programs in order to feed the monster that football coaching salaries is becoming? (And the ax would fall disproportiontely on men's programs thanks to Title IX.) Or finding ways to keep paying for them? No doubt there are wrestlers, runners, and swimmers out there that probably won't even know it, but will owe their continued ability to participate in their current sport at their current school to the 96-team behemoth of an NCAA tournament.
So the NCAA needs more money and is going to get it, and sticking with the current 64 (I don't acknowledge 65) team plan is no longer viable - that's the going assumption. That said, let's look at some of the options that have been tossed around the interwebs, as alternatives to a 96-team tournament:
- Expand to 68.
The basic idea here would be to have play-ins for all four 16 seeds instead of just one of them. This is very appealing from a symmetry standpoint, as well as a let's-not-totally-destroy-the-tournament standpoint, but not going to bring in any money. Actually, I think the idea of eight crap-conference teams fighting for the chance to play in the Big Dance is kind of appealing, especially if given the understanding that the losers get autobids as NIT 8-seeds. It'd be a fun way to do Play-In Tuesday. Problem is, the ratings would suck, because y'know, Tuesday. And no matter how much you promote it, nobody's going to take time from filling out their brackets to find out whether East Tennessee State or Arkansas-Pine Bluff gets the right to be fed to Kentucky. I'd be in favor of this idea for symmetry purposes, but fully admit it doesn't get any more money out of the ATM. Besides, the righteous indignation from columnists complaining that Cinderella is getting further and further shut out of the ball would be insufferable.
- Expand to 68, but play the play-ins between bubble teams for the 12th seed.
Or whatever seed the NCAA decrees, but 12 is generally the target here. You could actually see how this would generate a lot more interest. Nobody ever picks a 16 seed to win a game ever, and this is why nobody cares about the play-in. If it was for a slot in the tournament you actually had to worry about in your bracket? You bet your ass you'd be watching. To find out if Utah State is really all that that shiny 27-7 record cracks them up to be. To see if VT really does look scared to play any good teams outside the conference. You can't fill out the bracket not knowing who the 12 seeds are.
So the ratings would be enough to make it work, although there's still the issue of it probably still being Tuesday when we're all at work and it's too early in the week to skate off early. But the problem is this: For at least the last two years, the last four teams in - that is, the lowest four at-large bids - have been two 12 seeds, an 11, and a 10. Sometimes the at-larges drop to the 13 seed. This causes a big problem. Do you play these games on Selection Sunday and force the conferences to finish up their tournaments on Saturday? You'll get a lot of pushback from the conferences and you're really just robbing Peter to pay Paul because the ratings for these tournaments will suffer if they have to compete with each other for time slots (even more so than they do now) and if they replace a weekend game with a weekday one. But that's still the most appealing option, because the other choices are to 1) play Tuesday and call all the winners 12 seeds or 2) not announce the bracket until the games are over. The former will create seeding controversy every year and probably end up screwing over a bunch of teams all over the bracket. The latter is a logistical catastrophe and not ever going to be considered. Ergo, a nice idea in theory, but unworkable.
- Break up D-I into I-A and I-AA, like in football.
Speaking of "nice idea in theory but unworkable." This is something that's been bandied about in a very speculative way mostly by people who didn't really think about it much. The thinking goes: "if we have to make the tournament this damn big and let in all these unworthy teams, it's probably time to split things up." And it's appealing enough. The difference in resources between the little guys and big boys is stunning. You have D-I basketball teams playing in what basically amounts to a high school gym. Be serious.
But obviously enough, the discussion over who would stay and who would go would be, uh, touchy. It would be hideously unfair to simply split it up the exact same way football is. If you took Sagarin's top 11 conferences, the Sun Belt (an abomination of a football conference) and the MAC would be out, and the A-10 and MVC would be in. And that's not enough teams to make a quality 64-team tournament anyway, so you'd have this murderous but enormously entertaining catfight over which conferences get to comprise I-A basketball. And then what about superteams in crummy conferences? Do you tell the Horizon League they're no longer wanted and oh by the way Butler's coming with us ha ha you suck? Or do you consign Butler to their doom in basketball purgatory as a reward for being such a great story?
The resulting basketball tournament would be a lot more spirited and competitive without Morgan State taking up space, and whatever money the NCAA left on the table by not expanding could be made up during the suddenly-much-more-interesting regular season. And you might just be able to squeeze another couple dozen million out of a I-AA tournament. But this is a discussion the NCAA is never going to have.
- 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, or 92 teams.
I mean, what's the point? By this time you might as well just go all the way. If they didn't now, they would later anyway.
So. 96 it is - again, assuming that the NCAA has decided it's money time. I've come to see it as more or less inevitable, despite the many good reasons not to. It makes for some interesting questions that'll take time to answer. Like: UVA made two NCAA tournaments and four NITs in the past decade; since the NIT will be swallowed up and likely disappear, does that mean we'll make three times as many NCAA tournaments as we used to? When a team earns a 19-seed, will fans put a mental asterisk next to their name for making a tournament they wouldn't have made before? Coaches want the expanded tournament because making the tourney is their benchmark for success that keeps them employed. Will this backfire on them when they fail to make a tournament that should have been easier to get to?
I dunno either, but we'll find out.
Quick bullet stuff:
- Lacrosse stayed ranked #1, setting up our second #1 vs. #2 matchup of the year - this time an ACC rival in the opening event at the shiny new Giants stadium in New Jersey .... which I will miss because I will be at my cousin's wedding.
- Baseball did not stay ranked #1 anywhere, which is what happens when you lose a series to a 3-6 team that you probably should have swept. Ai. No panic - both losses were by a single run - but we need to not lose these series to crappy teams, because we play fewer of them than the other contenders as Wake isn't on the schedule. Georgia Tech is next week, and besides the terrific #2 vs. #4 matchup (BA's rankings), the Friday game should feature a pitching matchup for the ages: Danny Hultzen (4-1, 1.57) vs. Deck McGuire (5-1, 1.53.) Stat-wise, it's every bit as good as Drew Pomeranz vs. Anthony Ranaudo that'll happen later this year when Ole Miss faces LSU. If Hultzen wasn't a sophomore, it'd be just as hyped. Look for a Q&A later this week with longtime Q&A counterpart From The Rumble Seat, who threatened to make fun of us for being richer, smarter, and sexier than your average engineer if I didn't comply.
- Speaking of which, FTRS also had some questions about their new defensive coordinator, which I answered because as you might remember that would be Al Groh. So check that out too.