Wednesday, December 9, 2009
NCAA tourney expansion talks back in the picture

NEW YORK -- The NCAA tournament selection committee exhausted the idea of expansion four years ago, coming to the conclusion that the NCAA tournament was fine as is and should only be improved.

"It was serious and very engaged," said former committee member Jon LeCrone, the commissioner of the Horizon League. "We talked to as many stakeholders as we could."

The idea of expansion has re-emerged with the possibility that the NCAA might opt out of the final three years of its CBS television deal. The two issues -- a switch in television partners and expansion -- don't have to be tied together, but the committee is at least considering the possibility.

LeCrone said the discussions four years ago were about moving from 65 teams to 68 with four opening-round games in Dayton, Ohio, in which eight teams would play for the four 16 seeds. The pool would come from the lowest-rated automatic qualifiers. This would free up even more at-large berths. Another option was to go to 80 teams. A third plan was to increase it to 96, but it didn't get as far as 128.

"We gave everything a thorough look," LeCrone said.

LeCrone said that the late NCAA president Myles Brand was opposed to an expansion and that purists on the committee, such as himself, and athletic directors -- Princeton's Gary Walters, Virginia's Craig Littlepage and George Mason's Tom O'Connor -- were also against changing the format.

LeCrone said the committee engaged the National Association of Basketball Coaches, especially after Syracuse didn't make the field in 2007 -- when Syracuse was 10-6 in the Big East -- and there being a bit of a stink about the Orange's being excluded.

"We talked about adding another week of travel, what we were trying to accomplish; we had broad psychological conversations," LeCrone said. "I remember that we said to one another that we had given this serious thought over a period of time and that our collective opinion was that the arguments favoring expansion weren't more than arguments favoring to leave it alone."

But the idea of expansion was indeed floated this week as part of the NCAA's interest in possibly opting out early of its contract with CBS in order to renegotiate, either with CBS or with other television partners such as ESPN or a potential Comcast-NBC combination. What changed?

"With the deliberation on the future [of the television package], it made sense for us to look at this thing maybe a little bit more, and that's why you're hearing rumblings in Sports Business Journal," said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, the chairman of the 2010 selection committee, who was in New York to see the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night. "We need to do our due diligence and get an understanding of what the landscape looks like and what makes sense and what is in the best interest of the game.

"If there were to be expansion, there has to be a lot of discussion as to what degree, what format, how many teams, how it is structured and how many days. These are all things that need to be discussed and deliberated."

Guerrero said that the impact on conference tournaments and the regular season would be addressed, as well as "the impact on the championship itself."

Officials in the Big East admitted that an expansion to 96 teams would potentially damage the value of its conference tournament in New York. It's true. If the tournament's main charge is to determine NCAA teams, a major expansion that would include the bubble teams would make the Big East conference tournament essentially meaningless. The same would likely be true at money-making tournaments in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12.

"I don't think they should expand," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told in October. "As long as we have the end-of-season conference tournaments, then, to me, that's where the NCAA tournament starts.

"If we expand it, you get rid of the end-of-season tournaments, and I'd rather have the end-of-season tournaments. It's a celebration of each conference. I don't think we need to expand at all. To keep expanding it would dilute what we already have, and what we have is a great product right now."

LeCrone said that it's too early to determine how an expansion would affect multiple bids out of his conference, the Horizon League. If one assumes Butler is going to the Dance, the new format wouldn't necessarily mean Cleveland State or Wright State would or would not get into the dance.

Guerrero said the decision to expand isn't made solely by the committee. The committee studies the possibilities and then makes a recommendation to the NCAA's board of directors, which is made up of school presidents, before any decision is rendered.

"In the end, it's not just a committee decision that ultimately decides whether or not the field changes at all," Guerrero said. "It's always on the agenda for a possible discussion. That means you can deliberate on it for weeks. Every time we're together, we look at the timing and say if it makes sense and for the most part, we haven't gotten moved on expansion in any substantive way."

Guerrero wouldn't show his cards as to whether or not he would vote to add any more teams.

"I think March Madness and the Final Four is one of the greatest sporting events in the world," Guerrero said. "I think it's fabulous. I didn't say it would be changed, but I didn't say it wouldn't be changed. It's a great event. It will always be a great event."

If I had a say and wanted to tweak the format in any way, I would move only to what LeCrone referenced as the addition of three more teams, to 68. But I wouldn't assign the winners of the four opening-round games to 16 seeds. Instead, I would have eight bubble teams battle for an 11 or 12 seed. That way, you're being much more inclusive. And if the big boys complain about being in this position, the reality is that they would be getting a shot that they wouldn't have had without an additional game.

I wouldn't touch the 16 seeds. Yes, there are blowouts in the first round, but the anticipation that there could one day be a 16-seed over a 1-seed adds intrigue for the mainstream fan.