A 96-Team NCAA Tournament: Boon Or Folly?

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A 96-Team NCAA Tournament: Boon Or Folly?
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There has been a great deal of talk about the NCAA expanding the men's basketball tournament, either to 68 or 96 teams.

Apparently it is becoming more than just talk; Sports by Brooks reports that a 96 team-tournament is a "done deal." If this is true, the only question that remains is: is it a good thing?

Already many sports commentators and fans alike have spoken out against expansion. The current incarnation, it is argued, is close to perfect, and the NCAA is trying to fix something that isn't broken. Increasing the number of teams in the tournament when it is already so wildly popular speaks to many of a money grab, an attempt to cash in on the tournament's demand.

There are several cons to expansion (I will speak hence only about the proposed 96-team expansion, since a 68-team tournament will not be thoroughly different from this one). First, is that since it seems that many fans do not like the concept of expansion, the expansion may hurt popularity, which could negate the potential monetary gains of expansion.

Second, there will obviously be a dilution of talent. The selection committee will, instead of choosing the 34 best teams after automatic qualifiers, be choosing the 65 best teams. This means instead of disputing the relative merits of, say, Ole Miss, UNLV, and Old Dominion, whose RPI's are currently around 40, we would be arguing about the differences between teams like Western Carolina, Kent State, and Harvard, whose RPI's are around 70.

Third, the new first round of games would produce far lower quality matchups than the current first round. For example, a ninth seed, instead of playing a relatively evenly matched eighth seed in the current 65-team format, would play a 24th seed.

Furthermore, the chance for the Cinderella story that the NCAA tournament has been so famous for would likely be diminished, as the top eight seeds in every region will have a bye. This means these teams will get to rest while the lower seeds play, which will be a big advantage for the higher seeds in most cases.

Also, there will no doubt be claims about the fraud of having a tournament that runs so long and features game on weekdays claiming to feature "student-athletes." While graduation rates at most basketball programs prove that the "athlete" part of the the equation is far more important than the "student," the addition of another week of tournament run time would just further enforce the stereotype that these people are being paid (through scholarships) to play, not to study.

Running counter to all of these arguments is simply this: most if not all of these arguments were made when the NCAA expanded the field from 16 to 32, from 32 to 48 and/or from 48 to 64. And with each expansion the tournament has gotten better, more exciting, and has drawn more fan interest.

Depending on your point of view, the NCAA may be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, or upgrading a quality item to something even better. All that can be said at this point is that with every NCAA expansion came backlash, and it eventually created the great event we have today. Who's to say that the NCAA can't do it again with this current potential expansion?

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