Sunday, July 4, 2010

What's Up With NCAA's New 68-Team Tourney Format?

Get ready. The NCAA is set to announce how it’s going to handle its newly expanded 68-team basketball tourney field this week.

What does that mean?

First, a little background.

The NCAA tourney went from 48 to 64 teams in 1985. A 65th team was added in 2001.

This wasn’t enough for some coaches (can you say Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim?), who insisted that life as we know it would end unless the field was expanded to 96 teams. Justification came in the form of the increased number of Division I teams in recent years and the increased pressure on coaches to make the NCAA tourney regardless of regular season success.

Power matters, of course. If New Mexico State won 20 games and didn’t make the field, the powers in college basketball didn’t care. But if, say, Syracuse won 18 games and didn’t make it, then something had to be done.

Last spring NCAA officials suggested the tourney might be expanded to 80 or even 96 teams. This would likely have killed the 32-team NIT. Critics said the larger field would ruin the NCAA tourney’s charm and early drama.

Officials from CBS and Turner Broadcasting, who combined had agreed to pay out $10.8 billion over 14 years for the tourney televising rights, said they didn’t need more tourney games to make a profit. Nobody seemed to want that large a field except for on-the-bubble coaches.

And, of course, Jim Boeheim.

Finally, in April, the NCAA switched gears and said they’d add just three teams, for a 68-team field, starting next March. What they didn’t say, because they hadn’t figured it out, was how they would tweak the format to accommodate the extra teams.

They considered three options:

1) Put the eight lowest seeded teams into the first round and let them play each other. The four winners would then enter the 64-team second round.

2) Put the last eight teams to make the field into play-in games, much like they did with the one play-in game contested in recent years.

3) Combine both at-large teams and automatic qualifiers into an eight-team first round.

Officials from small conferences said they would be picked on. It’s much more likely that a small conference school, say from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, would face extra early round games rather than schools from the Big Ten or ACC.

Consider the SWAC consists of schools such as Jackson State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama State and Prairie View. Consider further that Jackson State won its league with a 17-1 record, but was just 19-12 overall. That means it was 2-11 outside its conference.

It deserved to be in the play-in game.

Finally, when and where would those extra early games be played? The answer is likely Dayton, Ohio, which has hosted play-in games in recent years.

All this remains speculation. By the end of the week, we should know the facts.

And then, perhaps, Jim Boeheim will find peace.

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