NCAA’s expanded 68-team tourney is a short stop to 96

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The 68-team field is a sleight-of-hand. A diversion. A three-card monte. Don’t be fooled. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament will be at 96 teams in no-time.

There was a lot of debate whether the NCAA would expand directly to 96 teams from the 65 in 2010. 96 teams would mean an extra game, likely on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the current first-round. That means more TV revenue for the NCAA, but also more missed classes for the student-athletes (and more missed work). The NCAA faced a firestorm from journalists when representatives attempted to claim no additional classroom time would be missed.

But here’s the brilliance of the 68 team-format recommendation… It gets us accustomed to an extra 2 days of basketball without any controversy.

Four extra games that actually count will draw the attention of everyone who fills out a bracket. I don’t know any pool that counted the play-in game – seed 64 vs. 65. However, forcing the last 4-in to play on Tuesday/Wednesday will definitely increase viewership during the “first round” and draw interest from those filling out brackets.

Semantics perhaps is the most important factor of the expansion. The “First Round” has advanced from the round of 64 to the round BEFORE the round of 64. No longer will we have to wait until Thursday for the NCAA tournament to begin (and have our brackets finalized). Here’s the brilliance – in 3-5 years from now, when the NCAA actually expands to 96 teams, they will have trained us to expect basketball on that Tuesday and Wednesday before the 64-team tournament begins.

Let’s not forget how this is seeded. The last-4-in is a huge part of the NCAA’s play here. They are counting on relevant “first-round” games, 12th seed vs. 17th seed, to matter. No one cares about the old 16th seed vs. 17th seed. However, 1-in-8 12th seeds should lose to 17th seeds, so these are compelling match-ups, and a couple upsets could enable the NCAA to call for expansion.

Further, when the bracketologists explains the last 4-out of the expanded tournament, the NCAA is already setting us up to ask them to expand the tournament. “GIVE US 4 MORE TEAMS” is what we’ve begged for years, and is exactly what they’ll deliver,  in 7-fold, soon.

The biggest evidence of all is that there aren’t any arguments left preventing the tournament from expanding to 96. While some debated pros and cons, there is only 1 reason the NCAA hasn’t expanded the tournament until now – class time. By getting folks used to the extra tournament days, they have eliminated any future obstacles to 96, and have set the stage for expansion.

Some have lobbied for keeping the tournament among the cream of the crop. However, division I basketball has expanded over the years to 350 teams. 96 teams is clearly meets the criteria of a playoff versus excluding those among the top 65 (in comparison, 1/2 of DI football teams play bowl games).

The NCAA will grab the money like no other sport with men’s college basketball. They can’t afford not to.

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