There’s plenty of reaction to possible NCAA basketball tourney expansion

Published 12:23 am Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It wouldn’t take an act of Congress, and in the overall scheme of things, expanding the field for the NCAA men’s basketball championship wouldn’t solve or create any problems for most Americans.

Then why have so many people offered so many opinions on something that’s only in the discussion stage, at best, and might not even happen?

Because the three-weekend, 65-team format has become as much a March staple as cold rain in the Northeast and the sound of batting practice in Florida and Arizona.

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Talk about expanding the field, from three more teams — to take away the stigma of a lone play-in game — to as many as 96, is getting much of the attention as the 2010 tournament begins.

The Associated Press asked coaches across the country about their feelings toward expanding the tournament as their teams played in conference tournaments.

Out of 23 coaches who talked to the AP, the results were roughly split between those favoring expansion to 96 teams, those who like the tournament the way it is but would open to tinkering with it and those who oppose expansion. Several others said they weren’t leaning either way just yet, but they do recognize the opportunity to make money, give more players the chance to experience the tournament, and — maybe most important — help a few of the 347 head coaches in Division I keep their jobs.

The NCAA tournament’s big moment of expansion was in the early 1980s, when the field grew from 32 to 40 then 48 teams. Finally, in 1985, the magic number became 64 — later to be upped by one.

It was in 1980 that the limit of one team per conference was lifted, changing the look and feel of the tournament.

“The coaches, at that time I think, were looking for direction from the Committee rather than venting at was handed down to them,” said Wayne Duke, the former commissioner of the Big Ten and Big Eight who was the chair of the Selection Committee from 1978-81. “The coaches now have more to say about it. I don’t remember it as a cause as they do these days. Coaches are more outspoken today, but believe me we did have our outspoken coaches in my day. Honestly, I can’t remember any negative feed back, at least not in a voice you hear now.”

Feelings these days are strong on both sides of the issue.

“I think 96 is too much. I really do. I think then the watering down does come into play,” said New Mexico coach Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. “I’m not in favor of 96, but I would be in favor of expanding it some.”

Texas coach Rick Barnes likes the way the current set up puts basketball front and center in the sports world.

“I don’t know why we want to expand it because I think it’s a good thing right now,” he said. “Obviously, every state has a chance to participate. It’s not like only big cities have a chance to participate. Every state can. People get into conference tournaments and that leads into the NCAA tournament. For three weeks it takes center stage. I think it’s great the way it is. I understand if it goes to 96, I think it’ll probably be because of money.”

The current 11-year, $6 billion deal between CBS and the NCAA for the television rights to the tournament has an opt out for the NCAA that is available until July 31. “Nothing is a done deal or decided at this point in time,” NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen said. “A lot is at stake here.”

Some coaches feel it’s not just about the money.

“I don’t think they’ll make a decision like that strictly on financial (reasons), but if there’s a significant difference in the amount of money that you could make” that has to be considered, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, adding the revenue generated by the men’s tournament funds almost all of the championships in other sports.

“The NCAA has to look at for the good of all college sports, what might be there. That’s a part of the equation. I don’t think it’s the only part, but it is part of the equation, how do you make enough money to fund all the things that you want to fund? If you just looked at basketball, singularly, you wouldn’t have to make that decision on it because we make enough to fund ourselves, but it’s about funding everything else. It’ll be an interesting spring and summer in that regard.”

If the field is expanded, which teams should get invited becomes the hot topic. The mid-majors and lower Division I teams think it should be them who get the bulk of the new bids. Others are worried it would just be an excuse to get most of the “power” conference teams off the bubble and in the field.

“If it’s going to be an experience in which, sure, the Southern Conference regular season winner goes, but then the ninth-place finisher in the SEC or the ACC or the Big East goes with those additional 30-plus or 10-plus or 5-plus slots, I don’t think that’s fair to the mid-major and low-major programs,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, whose mid-major Wildcats almost reached the Final Four in 2008.

He and other mid-major coaches know how just precious a bid can be.

“If I don’t go to the NCAA tournament in the next five years they’re going to fire (me) no matter how many games I won,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said.

“Our jobs are hard, man. It’s tough to win and harder to be good every year. And even if you are good and you don’t make the tournament, people say, ’Well, he’s no good.’ For us, you can play great all year and then get beat in our tournament on a bank shot and you don’t get to go to the NCAA tournament.”

Kansas coach Bill Self said he doesn’t see the real benefit to jumping to a number like 96. Like Krzyzewski, he’d take a more gradual approach.

“I think if expansion should occur, it should occur to 68 or 72 and have maybe additional play-in-type games,” he said. “I love the tournament the way it is and I don’t think we should be so shortsighted, though, that it isn’t possible to make it better. I just don’t know if going to 96 is the way because it was a great tournament when it was at 32 and it was a great tournament when it was at 48 … and now 65. It’s always been a great tournament but it’s always gotten a little bit better.”

Some big-time coaches can’t seem to make up their minds.

“A lot of things, I really do have a strong feel for, but I really don’t on this one,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

“You can make a case to me that there’s so many great teams or so many good teams and the margin between 64 and 66 is so slight, why not take it and add one more game, add all these teams. You could make a case and I’d say, ’All right, that’s pretty good.’ And then you could make a case how special the tournament is, it really makes the regular season mean a lot more. You can make the case how special 65 is, and you’d finish talking to me, and I’d say, ’Yeah, you’re right.’ So if I were to have a lean, I would lean toward the fact that it’s pretty special the way it is, but I could be convinced either way.”