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April 2, 2010
Remember the 65-Team Tournament?

by John Gasaway

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I have never seen a worse performance by my side in a discussion before. I'm ashamed to call myself an anti-expansion purist. Allow me to explain.

Yesterday the NCAA held a press conference in Indianapolis and announced that they had looked at several possible scenarios for future D-I men's basketball tournaments. Nothing's been decided, but after reviewing the possibilities the organization's decided that a 96-team field looks like it will work best. In an expanded bracket the top 32 teams would receive first-round byes. Now the 96-team plan will presumably go before the D-I men's basketball committee.

If you were anywhere near the internet yesterday afternoon you know that the highlight of the press conference was supplied by John Feinstein of the Washington Post, who exhibited admirable tenacity in chasing down a simple question. Feinstein merely wanted NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen to spell out what the second week of a newly expanded tournament would look like schedule-wise, and how much classroom time players on winning teams would miss. Right now, of course, players are back on campus on Monday each week, even if they keep winning. Would that still be the case?

Feinstein was merely doing his job, doing it quite well in fact, and trying to get a straight answer. But in an age of Twitter the amount of attention devoted to this exchange quickly lost any connection it might have had to the importance of the issue itself. If you're truly concerned about the bottom-line aggregate number of hours that the total student population at 347 member institutions spends outside the classroom due specifically to post-season D-I men's basketball, it's of far greater importance to halt the spread of non-NCAA tournaments than it is to fret about what will happen with 32 teams that survive the first weekend of a newly expanded NCAA bracket. The rise of weird acronyms like the CBI and the CIT alongside the more familiar NIT means that this month fully 129 D-I teams took part in some form of post-season, no matter how obscure. Every team that's added to that number increases the total amount of time spent outside the classroom.

(May I add a follow-up? If you're truly concerned about the bottom-line aggregate number of hours that the total student population at 347 member institutions spends outside the classroom due specifically to post-season D-I men's basketball, you, somewhat ironically, have a lot of free time.)

The Twitter chatter caused by Feinstein's probing, however, turned out to be elevated and enlightening compared to what came next: A slate of features objecting to expansion not because it's needless and threatens something precious but because apparently the people at the NCAA are actually robber barons from the 1870s who were preserved by space aliens using cyrogenics and then brought back to life sometime in 2007 specifically to make piles of loot for a semi-voluntary governing association in Indianapolis.

This has not been the college basketball punditry's finest hour. A proposal to change the NCAA tournament is very close to fruition, and the best said punditry has been able to muster is "money grab" and "wreck the regular season." I'm on the record as finding the latter sound-bite patently silly; let me now take a stab at the former.

Suppose the NCAA held a press conference first thing tomorrow morning at which Greg Shaheen said the following: "I'm pleased to announce an unprecedented funding agreement whereby 100 percent of all revenues generated by televising 31 newly created tournament games will be donated to the American Society of Newspaper Editors to support our nation's struggling newspaper industry." Would you still oppose tournament expansion, knowing that the NCAA would not get one dime and that the money would go to a good cause?

My answer would be an emphatic yes, of course I would still oppose expansion, because I love the tournament the way it is. The motives of the people advocating a needless idea are wholly beside the point. Indeed if it could somehow be objectively shown that expansion was being advocated by men and women possessing souls on a plane equal to those of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Mitch Albom, I would still oppose expansion because the tournament is close to perfect the way it is.

We simply don't know what will happen when we expand the field. I'm willing to grant that Jay Wright and Will Leitch could in theory be correct and that maybe this anti-expansion furor will in hindsight appear to have been much ado about nothing. But my point is more fundamental: There's no need to find out if that's the case or not. The tournament is wondrous as-is, it makes fistfuls of cash, it's a national ritual, it's BCS-free, the president already plays P-O-T-U-S with Clark Kellogg and Harry Smith, etc.

I know full well that I'm arguing for a lost cause, of course. Regardless of my Burkean scruples on this point, the tournament is almost certainly going to expand, perhaps even as soon as next year. Well, so be it. I've already admitted I'll watch the very games whose creation I oppose. And therein lies the NCAA's built-in advantage. When a self-described "purist" on the other side of the question has acknowledged, in effect, "Once I lose this argument, I'll be watching the commercials you auctioned off," the outcome isn't really in doubt. Only the consequences of that outcome.

John spins very plausible theories about robber barons from the 1870s and banks receiving TARP funds on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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