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Should the NCAA Basketball Tourney Expand?

Paul McGuillicuddyAnalyst IDecember 13, 2009

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19:  Head coach Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange looks on against the California Golden Bears during their semifinal game of the 2K Sports Classic on  November 19, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

To expand, or not to expand:  that is the question.

For the NCAA, the question also becomes one of risk and reward.

As the NCAA basketball season kicks into gear, so, too, have discussions about the men’s basketball postseason tournament.

Is 65 teams enough? Should the tournament field increase? If so, how many teams should compete for a spot in the Final Four?

Part of these conversations includes an evaluation of the television broadcast of March Madness.

While its contract with CBS nears an end, the NCAA is assessing the alternatives.

Initial discussions have focused on the field.

Coaches have proposed increasing the number of teams invited to the NCAA tournament from four to six, thus, increasing the number of play-in games.

These conversations have extended to the proposition of the field increasing to 80 or 96 teams.

Now the NCAA is considering a switch to cable television.

On the surface, this seems like a win-win situation for basketball fans.

Would fans get anything they do not already have?

Such a change is attractive, but it would come at an expense.

Moving to cable would improve overall viewing of the tournament, particularly in the first three rounds.

The tournament expanded from 48 teams to 64 in 1985.

The NCAA added a 65th team in 2001.

This expansion seems to have rendered CBS helpless.

Bound by the conventions of standard television, CBS struggles when faced with the prospect of broadcasting eight to 16 games in one day.

Viewers must endure the whims of studio producers dictating which game will be watched at any given time (proponents of Dish TV enjoy a sense of satisfaction).

The situation grows worse because CBS  insists on a dinner break during these first two days, even though games are taking place.

CBS has taken steps in past years to improve on their presentation. Still the broadcast lacks.

Moving to cable television would allow expanded coverage of each game, and give viewers personal choice which game they watched and to what extent. This is a good thing.

Like anything else in life, to get something means someone must give something.

Increasing the NCAA Tournament field comes at the expense of the already-established individual conference tournaments.

A field of 96 diminishes the value of the automatic bid needed for many teams.

Is the NCAA willing to risk the value of the conference tournaments?

To better understand this dilemma, one needs to go no further than the Syracuse Orange.

In 2006, SU coach Jim Boeheim was outspoken about the need to increase the tournament field from four to six teams.

Boeheim’s Orange club found themselves on the outside looking in that year.

Boeheim lobbied for minor increases.

Last year, Boeheim’s Orange earned a spot in the field of 65 with a magical run through the Big East tournament.

SU fans now proudly refer to last year’s team as "Marathon Men."

SU outlasted the UConn Huskies in an epic six-overtime quarter-final match.

If an automatic bid is not as important, do the Orange and Huskies play that game the same way? Would either team sacrifice the conference tournament title for something larger? Is that a good thing?

The NCAA postseason begins with the individual conference tournaments.

Fans have as much, if not more, access to these games as they would to an NCAA tournament consisting of 96 teams.

The culmination of these conference tournaments becomes the Saturday before Selection Sunday. On that day, eight to 10 (depending upon the schedule) conferences play their championships.

Add in semi-final games for the ACC, Big Ten, and the Big 12, and college basketball fans have a smorgasbord of action.

On that day, no studio producers dictate games for fans. No dinner breaks interrupt the viewing.

Starting before noon and ending after midnight, fans can get all they want.

To expand or not to expand?

Maybe, the NCAA should consider another of life’s adages: Better to leave well enough alone.

Pickin Splinters

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