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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Mike DeCourcy: NCAA ignoring unpopularity of expansion plan

Thursday, Apr. 1, 2010 - 9:27 p.m. ET

INDIANAPOLIS—The news conference started late, and nobody was in any hurry to get to the point, which made it rather obvious the NCAA isn't particularly proud of its plan to expand the men's basketball championship field to include 96 teams.

Forget about the drama of Villanova-Robert Morris if the tournament expands.Those assigned to (eventually) make the case for 96, notably Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, recognize how unpopular this deal is. In most businesses, the sort of feedback the NCAA is receiving would be all the evidence anyone would need to shelve the project until its time arrives. If ever.

The NCAA does not appear to be concerned with what the majority of its customers want, though.

Why this is moving forward isn't entirely clear, because no one yet has been told how much money it will be worth. About as close as anyone came to an explanation was Shaheen after the formal presentation: "This is about the experience, the opportunity to win a championship."

The shame of Thursday's news conference is it degenerated mostly into an argument about whether more players would miss more class in March as the result of an expanded tournament.

The NCAA's simple answer comes down to one point: Lots of teams are playing useless games in the NIT, so if we slap the NCAA Tournament label on those useless games it's pretty much the same number of kids missing the same number of classes. The NCAA folks probably wouldn't put it like that, though.

The essential issue of how tournament expansion might damage the college basketball regular season was given cursory attention.

"There's no way to tell where the additional teams will come from," Shaheen said. So as far along as the NCAA has gone in discussing expansion, there's still no plan for selecting the additional 31 teams.

Those in charge are considering whether to implement all sorts of contraptions and devices to retain the regular season's importance or infuse it with new meaning—but they really don't have a handle on what they might want to do. It's unlikely they'll decide on anything until after a final decision is rendered on tournament expansion.

This "fill in the details later" approach is something we usually see only from the U.S. Congress.

The decision-makers in this process seem to understand neither the rhythm of the season that worked to build college basketball to its current position nor the chemistry of the tournament that has made it a billion-dollar enterprise.

"The opportunity for there to be an upset on any given day is part of what makes the tournament great," Shaheen said. "It's part of what's made the tournament great for the last 25 years. It's the opportunity to be able to grow it from there."

The very act of expanding, though, would remove the possibility of the colossal upset from the equation. Because the games that produce those results would not be played.

Consider Robert Morris vs. Villanova from the 2010 tournament. The Colonials were a No. 15 seed; Villanova was a No. 2 seed. If a 96-team field were in place this year, Villanova still would have been a No. 2 seed, but would have received a bye for the opening day. Robert Morris would have been placed at the bottom of the field, seeded 23rd in the regional and opened against someone along the lines of No. 10 seeds Missouri, Georgia Tech or Florida.

The pressure of potential embarrassment that visited Villanova for much of the Robert Morris game never would have become a factor for the Gators—they'd lost enough during the regular season to move beyond the capacity for embarrassment. The thrill of something potentially magical or historic happening, which sent fans scrambling to TVs as Robert Morris tried to finish off Villanova, never would be ignited. The Colonials beating a No. 10 seed? That'd barely raise an eyebrow.

At a subsequent news conference conducted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, executive director Jim Haney said his membership "clearly feels that one of the criteria for sustaining their positions is to make the NCAA Tournament. So it's no surprise … that our coaches more would favor expansion than those that would oppose it."

What isn't acknowledged by coaches, though, is in dumbing down requirements the very real possibility exists of increasing pressure on coaches who fall short. Why wouldn't a program fire a million-dollar coach who can't make the 96?

The one good thing I learned Thursday is that expansion is not a fait accompli. No matter how much you hear it's a done deal, there's still the possibility someone with the power and wisdom to recognize its folly could move to prevent it. I don't expect it to happen, but I didn't expect Northern Iowa over Kansas, either.

Which reminds me: In a 96-team universe, that game wouldn't have occurred, either.

Mike DeCourcy covers college basketball for Sporting News. E-mail him at

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