Yogin Kothari: Expanding the right way

The day before Duke faced Butler University in the final round of the NCAA March Madness tournament, many college basketball fans were focusing on a photo printed in the Indianapolis Star of Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski as a blue devil. But fans may have missed the news that NCAA officials were looking to expand the traditional 65-team tournament to a new and unprecedented 96-team format.

By April 1, NCAA Vice President Greg Shaheen outlined a detailed plan for the new tournament, from logistics and revenue distribution to how much time the players would have in between games to attend classes.

Thankfully though, this plan did not materialize. On April 22, the NCAA decided against expanding to an 80 or 96-team format, choosing to add three teams to the annual big dance. The more modest 68-team proposal, which had been floated earlier, was a welcome surprise decision by the NCAA and one that should please players, coaches and university officials. It should also please CBS Sports and the newest member to the NCAA broadcast team, Turner Broadcasting.

The tournament, which was expanded in 1985 from 53 teams to 64 teams and in 2001 to 65 teams, has not gone through a major overhaul in 25 years. A 96-team expansion, however, would have been disastrous, even though it had supporters among many coaches, athletic directors and NCAA officials. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was one of the major champions of the 96-team expansion. He believes the 68-team approach is a step in the right direction, but wants to see a larger expansion in the future. Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith also supported expansion, arguing there would be more excitement if more teams got in.

For several reasons, it would have been a terrible idea all around for the NCAA to expand to a 96-team field. First off, the main reason for the expansion was money. The NCAA would have been able to get an extremely lucrative deal from television networks because more games would need to be broadcast nationally, possibly leading to a bidding war between ESPN and CBS Sports. While I understand that more than 95 percent of the NCAA governing body’s revenue comes from broadcasting rights to March Madness, this was the wrong reason to expand.

Krzyzewski believed expansion would force the regular season to “mean something.” He believed that with the expansion, both regular season and conference tournament champions would get automatic bids into the tournament. While this could be an upside, it would also be a severe break from tradition and would alienate many fans that enjoy bracketology. Several fans voiced their opinions against having to understand the dynamics of 96 different teams and filling out the expanded brackets. I myself would not have found that fun. It would have taken away from the significance of the tournament and watered it down by allowing so many more teams to earn bids.

GW’s men’s basketball head coach Karl Hobbs acknowledged the 96-team tournament would have some initial problems, including how bidding would be handed out for a larger pool. But Hobbs was a strong believer in expansion, citing the 96-team format would give more teams an opportunity to get into the dance. Referring to when he played for the University of Connecticut, Hobbs said some years UConn had good teams but didn’t receive bids to the tournament because it was only a 32-team tournament then. Even though it may be a difficult transition at first, Hobbs was confident universities and fans would adjust to an expansion.

This may be true, but in the end the NCAA made the right decision. With the new deal, the NCAA will have $740 million per year to distribute among conferences and schools in the tournament. This also allows the National Invitation Tournament to remain intact. Additionally, it maintains the excitement of watching teams like Northern Iowa, Cornell, Atlantic 10 representative Xavier, and national runner-up Butler have deep runs.

While the tournament could still expand to 96 teams in the future, that talk has been put on hold for now. Coach Hobbs put it best when he said, “You still have to win games and you still have to be in the conversation” to receive bids to the tournament. He’s right. No matter how many teams are invited to March Madness next year, to get to that point, you have to win games. Let’s hope that next year, GW will be in that conversation and earn a bid to the big dance.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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