April 14, 2010

Coaches believe tournament expansion inevitable

MORE: Mid-majors may not benefit | How the 96-team field might have looked

NCAA tournament expansion seems as inevitable as one of those first-round flameouts that cause fans across the country to toss their brackets in disgust.

And, in some circles, it's nearly as unwelcome.

The proposal to expand the field from 65 to 96 teams has received widespread derision from the national media, which was apparent when NCAA officials discussed the matter during a Final Four news conference that occasionally grew contentious. The public outcry against a 96-team tournament suggests most fans don't want it, either.

Yet even critics of expansion believe it's on the way.

"It's kind of an unstoppable force," said Gonzaga's Mark Few, one of the few coaches of a major power to express reservations about the idea. "It keeps growing and growing and growing.''

The support for expansion comes from a couple of obvious sources: Coaches are counting on more bids to provide more job security, and NCAA officials believe an expanded tournament can provide more money.

That potential financial windfall could cause a 96-team tournament to arrive as early as next season. The NCAA board of directors will discuss the issue April 29 at a meeting in Indianapolis, though one member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee emphasized that expansion isn't a done deal just yet.

"I don't think for sure that it will happen," said Doug Fullerton, who also serves as the Big Sky Conference's commissioner.

The more, the merrier

The potential financial windfall is one reason we could see a 96-team tournament as early as next season. The NCAA has the right this summer to opt out of the final three years of its 11-year, $6 billion television contract with CBS. A 96-team tournament that features 31 more games presumably would cause the rights fee to increase exponentially.

"If television wants more games and wants to expand the tournament... that's probably the way it will be," said Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis, who has made nine NCAA tournament appearances in his previous stops at Boston University, George Washington and St. John's.

And that's the way most coaches want it, particularly those in the six major conferences. In fact, when Division I college basketball coaches held an informal vote on the topic of NCAA tournament expansion at their annual convention a couple of years ago, nobody bothered to produce a hand count on the final results.

There was no need.

Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, estimated that 70 to 80 percent of coaches favored the move at the time.

"From a coach's standpoint, there's a pretty basic issue for the majority of them, which is self-preservation," Haney said. "The defining line as to whether you're successful in your program is making the NCAA tournament. I don't think it's newsworthy that coaches in general - it's certainly not unanimous - but that coaches in general support expansion."

There are some notable exceptions.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said he would favor a 96-team format only if college basketball officials did away with conference tournaments and vowed to hand at least 16 of those 31 extra bids to teams from outside the six major conferences.

"If they do that, I'd say 'yes,' " Calipari said. "If not, it's all based on money and there's no need to do it."

Few feared that earning an NCAA bid wouldn't feel quite as special if the tournament expanded to 96 teams.

"I've been one that just thinks it's great the way it is," Few said. "We've been fortunate enough to go to 12 straight, and it's such a feeling of pride and accomplishment when your name pops up on the board that Sunday afternoon. I'd just be a little hesitant if it's taking away from that."

But they seemingly represent the minority.

A sampling of opinions from the NABC convention two weeks ago showed the overwhelming majority of coaches from major conferences favored at least some form of expansion, even if most weren't ready to go quite as far as Florida State's Leonard Hamilton.

"I don't see a downside," Hamilton said. "In fact, I don't see why we need to stop at 96. Why don't we just double it? If we're going to 96, we're going to have an extra day anyway. If we double it [to 128], we don't have to have any byes. ... That cliché of cheapening or watering down anything is ludicrous. It's win-win for everybody."

Who gets in?

The fears that expansion could water down the importance of the regular season come from the conventional wisdom that in a typical season, at least two-thirds of the schools from the six major conferences would be included in a 96-team tournament.

Consider that one of the biggest stories of the 2009-10 regular season was the demise of defending national champion North Carolina, which went 5-11 in ACC competition and 16-16 overall. Yet the Tar Heels almost certainly would have earned an NCAA bid in a 96-team tournament.

In effect, an expanded NCAA field now also would encompass the 32-team NIT field, a tournament also overseen by the NCAA. UNC was a No. 4 seed in the NIT, which would've put the Heels comfortably in a field of 96. Other teams in the NIT that finished below .500 in their leagues were North Carolina State, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Connecticut, St. John's and Northwestern.

"Isn't this whole thing a window into society?" Davidson coach Bob McKillop told The New York Times last month in one of the most stinging critiques of expansion. "We've diminished so many other things. We've diminished test scores. We've diminished admission policies. We diminish so much for reasons that are not accentuating excellence and performance. It's almost too inclusive."

McKillop declined further comment to Rivals.com on the issue last week, but even some expansion supporters understand the criticism.

"If I were a fan, I don't think I'd be for it," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. "If I weren't in this profession, I think that I wouldn't [favor it]. The reason is this is a national championship tournament. It just seems from a fan's standpoint a little unusual that we're going to take the ninth- and 10th-place teams out of a conference and say they're playing for the national championship. I guess it depends on the perspective."

Jankovich still favors the plan, and who could blame him? A 96-team field would have allowed Illinois State to reach the NCAA tournament instead of settling for an NIT bid each of the past three seasons.

Expansion backers note that less than 20 percent of the 347 Division I basketball programs currently reach the NCAA tournament, whereas more than half the Football Bowl Subdivision schools earn bowl bids each fall.

But that isn't necessarily a fair comparison, since only the two teams that reach the BCS championship game are playing for a national title. You could argue that football teams competing in all the other bowls are essentially participating in their own sport's version of the NIT, a postseason event with no national championship at stake.

But even if you add all the teams that made the NCAA, NIT, the College Basketball Invitational and the College Insider Tournament, that still means just 129 of the 347 Division I basketball programs received postseason berths this season.

"It's not just about dollars and cents," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "I know that somehow is being looked at as being the driving force for doing this, but there are so many young people who don't have the opportunity to play in the postseason. Now you're giving opportunities to play for the national championship to more teams. I think that's great."

'I'm in, so you can't kick me out'

Of course, coaches also fully realize that an expanded field could help them save their jobs.

Consider that bubble teams St. John's, Seton Hall and Charlotte fired coaches after failing to make the NCAA tournament this season. Under a 96-team format, all three of those schools likely would have earned NCAA bids.

"It can do an awful lot for the stability of our game," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "One of the things I've learned from being in some of these NCAA committees is that one of the things that really put a drag on graduation rates is coaching changes. If it means that more coaches get to keep their jobs because of tournament expansion, I think it's good for the game."

Skeptics could point out the problems in citing graduation rates as a reason to back a tournament expansion plan that could cause dozens of student-athletes to miss additional classes, but the real folly in this argument could be the notion that tournament expansion automatically will produce more job security. Wake Forest advanced beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years and fired coach Dino Gaudio anyway. Perhaps that's the start of a trend.

"I just think [expansion's] going to move the goal posts a little bit," said CBS Sports and Yahoo! Sports analyst Greg Anthony, a guard on UNLV's 1990 national championship team. "Now instead of just getting into the tournament, you'll have to win in the tournament if you're one of those coaches on the hot seat."

The effect of expansion on a coach's job security isn't the only lingering mystery surrounding the effect of a 96-team field.

For one thing, nobody knows what types of programs will receive those extra bids. Will traditional one-bid leagues now get additional invitations? Or will the majority of those bids go to major-conference teams that otherwise would have headed for the NIT?

Robert Morris coach Mike Rice believes he knows the answer - and he isn't particularly happy about it. Rice predicts most of those extra bids will go to schools from the six major conferences. He also assumes that few of the 32 first-round byes in a 96-team field would go to low-major or mid-major programs.

Robert Morris nearly pulled off the tournament's biggest first-round upset this season before falling in overtime to Villanova. The Colonials were a No. 15 seed. Under a 96-team format, Robert Morris likely would've been a No. 22 or No. 23 seed and would have needed to win a first-round game just to get the chance to face someone of Villanova's caliber in the second round.

"If I was in the BCS [a Big Six league], there's no question I'd be jumping up and down saying we should have expansion because it saves guys' jobs and includes more people," Rice said. "But when you're in the low to mid [major], we're not getting an at-large bid. We automatically go into a giant play-in weekend."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski raised the possibility of awarding automatic NCAA bids to all regular-season conference champions as well as the winners of the postseason conference tournaments; under the current system, the NIT "protects" the regular-season winner of a league in case it loses in its conference tournament. That's how Coastal Carolina, Jackson State, Jacksonville, Kent State, Stony Brook, Troy and Weber State made the NIT this season.

Krzyzewski's plan would ease concerns that a 96-team tournament would diminish the importance of the regular season. His proposal has received plenty of support from low-major conferences that are worried about how expansion could impact them.

"It would help out leagues like ours if that were the case," said Weber State coach Randy Rahe, whose team is in the Big Sky. "Regular-season championships are the hardest things to win. To go three months and win a championship is harder than winning a two-day tournament."

But it's hard to imagine this proposal earning widespread support.

"Then I think you're giving a lot of leagues that are one-bid leagues two automatic bids," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "I don't think that's equitable because I don't think those teams are more deserving than some other schools. A league has to determine, 'Do we want our regular-season champion or do we want our tournament champion to get the bid?' I don't think we should give two automatic bids per league."

Of course, it doesn't really matter what coaches think of a plan that could award as many as two automatic bids to each conference. The real question is the one posed by the Big Sky's Fullerton, who doubles as a member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

"Can they sell it?" Fullerton asked.

That seems unlikely. TV networks probably wouldn't bid quite as much for a 96-team tournament that included multiple representatives from traditional one-bid leagues.

A Stony Brook or a Weber State might have been more deserving of a bid this season than North Carolina or Connecticut, but which teams would CBS or ESPN officials have rather televised?

If it's televised, will everyone watch?

Another question is how high the bidding for rights fees for a 96-team tournament might go. The assumption is that more games and more teams in the tournament will produce more millions for the NCAA, but CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell cautions that expansion also could have its drawbacks.

Rovell noted that if expansion does indeed diminish the importance of the regular season or of conference tournaments, perhaps not as many people will be watching those events. How many fans would care about watching conference tournaments when they knew even an opening-round loss wouldn't prevent their favorite team from earning an NCAA bid?

"ESPN broadcasts a ton of regular-season games, and if they're seeing that there's some drop in those ratings because people just feel like it doesn't matter, it's a problem," Rovell said. "We know the reason why the NFL has the ratings it has. It's because every game counts. In college basketball, every game doesn't count, but a lot of them do, and a lot of them shown on ESPN do.

"If you all of a sudden say, 'Well, this game counts, sort of,' am I more inclined to watch it? No."

A potential 96-team tournament already would lack the first-round sizzle provided by the current 65-team format. Think of all the excitement that was created when No. 2 seed Villanova had to come from behind against Robert Morris and Georgetown - a No. 3 seed - got blown out by Ohio. In a 96-team tournament, Villanova and Georgetown would have earned two of the 32 first-round byes. And there would've been no Kansas-Northern Iowa matchup in the second round.

Anthony, an expansion proponent, noted that a 96-team format offers its own advantages. A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. A top-seeded team would be in greater jeopardy of losing its opening game under this new setup.

"You're going to have teams that get a bye, and they're going to be out for that week when they're not playing," Anthony said. "As a coaching staff, you have to deal with rust. Is your team going to be a little more anxious when they get the opportunity to play finally because they've been off for a while? There are a lot of scenarios that come into play that could create more excitement.

"I believe [expansion] will happen, and I believe it's in the best interest of the game long-term."

Of course, nobody knows for sure whether expansion will benefit the game. Nor do we know if a 96-team actually will result in fewer offseason coaching changes. And it remains a mystery whether those extra bids would be spread around or would go primarily to the six major conferences.

The only clear consensus is that we're about to learn the answers to these questions because a 96-team bracket could be coming to your office pool as soon as next season. Even the critics of expansion concede that much.

"A lot of powerful people within our sport are saying it's inevitable," Few said, "so it probably is."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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