Expanding The NCAA Tournament To 96 Teams: Outstanding, Or Overwhelming?

SB Nation's Andrew Sharp analyzes both sides of the argument to expand the NCAA Tournament field to 96 teams, which essentially hinges on this question: At what point is more basketball too much basketball?

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Expanding The NCAA Tournament To 96 Teams: Outstanding, Or Overwhelming?

I'm not alone suggesting that the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament are the two best days of the year for a sports fan. Just look at Thursday: seven of the games were decided by 3 points or less, and that's not including Florida-BYU, which went double overtime.

So in other words, half of the 16 games were really close, not to mention the seven teams that upset higher-seeded opponents. There's a reason people love this stuff. Every year, March Madness delivers the goods. And even if it's not your favorite sports holiday, it's in everybody's top five.

Which is why, to most fans, it's seems completely insane to try and change it.

But before we dig into the pluses and minuses, here's what we're talking about when we mention change. About a month ago, rumors began to swirl that starting next season the the NCAA Tournament could be expanded to a whopping 96 teams. The NCAA has a chance to opt out of its current television contract with CBS, and if that happens, there's a distinct possibility—probability, depending on who you ask—that expansion will happen. This has myriad implications, but chief among them would be increased automatic bids for conferences around the country, turning the "first weekend" of games into a "first week," and, at least initially, the change would mean a lot of pissed off basketball fans.

It's important to remember, though: People reacted the same way when the tournament expanded to 64 teams. People even got indignant when the dunk was legalized in college.  In the eyes of most fans, there's no such thing as evolution, only devolution. And more often than not, hindsight eventually proves us wrong. So even though it's tempting to trumpet this proposal as the college basketball apocalypse, remember: these things are usually overblown.

So with that in mind, let's look at this objectively. Now that the tournament field has been announced, we can take a better guess at what a 96-team tournament might look like. Assuming the NCAA Tournament would absorb the NIT—which the NCAA already owns—one man took a look at this year's "96 Team Bracket" and here's a sample of what he saw in the East Regional.

EAST (Syracuse Regional)

New Orleans

Tuesday (March 16)

Game 1 - No. 9 Wake Forest vs. No. 24 Jacksonville
Game 2 - No. 12 Cornell vs. No. 21 Montana
Game 3 - No. 13 Virginia Tech vs. No. 20 Northeastern
Game 4 - No. 16 Seton Hall vs. No. 17 Wofford

Thursday (March 18)

Game 5 - No. 1 Kentucky vs. Seton Hall/Wofford winner
Game 6 - No. 8 Texas vs. Wake Forest/Jacksonville winner
Game 7 - No. 4 Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech/Illinois State winner
Game 8 - No. 5 Temple vs. Cornell-Montana winner

San Jose

Wednesday (March 17)

Game 1 – No. 15 Wichita State vs. No.18 William & Mary
Game 2 – No. 10 Missouri vs. No. 23 East Tennessee State
Game 3 – No. 11 Washington vs. No. 22 Morgan State
Game 4 – No. 14 UAB vs. No. 19 Illinois State

Friday (March 19)

Game 5 – No. 2 West Virginia vs. Wichita State/William & Mary winner
Game 6 – No. 7 Clemson vs. Missouri/East Tennessee winner
Game 7 – No. 3 New Mexico vs. UAB/Illinois State winner
Game 8 – No. 6 Marquette vs. Washington/Morgan State winner

Is that a lot to digest? Well, that's only a quarter of the bracket. For the pairings in South, West, and Midwest, click over to the original piece at ACCSports.com. And even though it's hard to read, it's just as difficult to pretend some of those matchups wouldn't be intriguing. Mostly, we'd end up with some of the same first round matchups we have in this year's field of 65, just with one more game beforehand. Plus, that's one more opportunity for upsets that'll captivate fans and catapult no-name schools into the spotlight. Who's against that?

As Dan Shanoff points out, more March Madness is never a bad thing:

What matters is that a "15" was beating a "2." Or that a "14" beat a "3." Or that you'd never heard of Murray State but heard of Vanderbilt. Or that this team won on a dramatic last-second shot. Or that your personal picks were right/wrong/whatever.

Expanding the Tournament doesn't change any of that. In fact, it multiplies it: Instead of two days of jam-packed games, upsets, buzzer-beaters and bracket affirmation, you get four days.

Critics argue that the field would be watered down with teams that don't really belong in the NCAA Tournament. "If everyone gets into the tournament, then the regular season would be meaningless" they say. "And worse, it would detract from the mystique of the greatest tournament in sports." And both are fair points. There's a reason nobody fills out an NIT bracket every year; who wants to guess what might happen when a bunch of mediocre teams play each other?

But ultimately, basketball fans would get over it. Not every team in the Tournament would be great, but most of them would be good. And again, more exciting basketball is always a good thing, right?

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Right. More March Madness is a good thing. But another important point: more Madness also means more money for the NCAA, which is the only reason this is even being considered. It has nothing to do with "more great games!" or rewarding "more deserving teams." It's all about money. We don't necessarily have to be skeptical of a 96-team tournament, but we should never stop being skeptical of the NCAA. 

In short, they are greedy bastards; we must never forget this fact.

And ultimately, that's why this is such a terrible idea. Blinded by dollar signs, the NCAA decision-makers don't realize that they're jeopardizing the relevance of the whole thing. Because while more basketball may not upset hardcore basketball fans, it'll alienate the casual fans that take the whole spectacle to another level.

For non-obsessed sports fans, 65 teams is already pretty overwhelming; imagine your girlfriend looking at a bracket with 96 teams, 32 first-round byes, and 24 seeds in each region. Girlfriends, and bosses that don't like sports, and your mom, and little brother, and a hundred other people in life that normally don't like college basketball and have no idea who Sherron Collins is...

These are the people that make March Madness a spectacle on par with the Super Bowl.

When else in sports can you say that everyone is paying attention to the same sporting event? For that matter, when else can you say that about anything these days? Cable TV and the Internet have fractured the audience for nearly everything, as the world separates into a million niches. And there's almost nothing out there that can bridge the gap, at least in America. The Super Bowl... State of the Union... American Idol... That Tiger Woods press conference... March Madness... What else captivates everybody? And if the NCAA Tournament expands, suddenly, all that gets jeopardized.

The problem with 96 teams isn't rooted in basketball, but logistics. Instead of a four day whirlwind of activity, we'd be inundated for a week straight with all the hoops we can handle. That sounds great to a basketball junkie, but are regular people going to tune in all week? Maybe, but I'm betting no. And right now it's so, so perfect for the casual fan.

Four days of great games ... then a three day break ... then four more days ... and then the final four.

That's what Shanoff (and others who agree with him) gets wrong about this whole thing:

There is nothing inherent in expanding the Tournament to 96 teams that detracts from all of these basic elements of what makes the Tournament so amazing. In fact, it might just enhance it by giving us more.

The genius of the NCAA Tournament isn't the Cinderella stories, or the last-second shots, but that that magic is so self-contained that you don't need to follow it all year, or even all week, to appreciate what's happening. Casual fans can experience the magic of March Madness just by going to a sports bar on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament. Like the Super Bowl, there are a million different elements that appeal to various fans, but the common thread is this: you can sit in one place and get the whole experience, all-at-once.

This is why 200 million people enter office pools, and the first two days of the NCAA tournament prompt a drop in productivity that costs U.S. businesses to lose $1.8 billion. Everyone wants to get in on the action. With 96 teams, the first weekend becomes a first week. How many of those casual fans—your girlfriend, your boss—would be willing to spend the week watching basketball, neglecting work and family and American Idol?

The majority of people just don't have the time or energy to invest in six days of basketball. 

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This is the real problem with expanding the NCAA tournament. It's not an issue of watering down the tournament field; it's a matter of culture, and the way ours works. The collective attention span is not necessarily elastic. At some point, even something as awesome as March Madness could become over-saturated. And that would be a shame. Much worse than adding a bunch of mediocre teams or jeopardizing the tournament mystique

Sports fans love this weekend because for three or four days, and then again next weekend, we get to share the drama of basketball with a bunch of people that otherwise don't care about sports. The games are always great, but having those outsiders around brings the experience to another level. Seeing family and friends get excited about something we love, and something that they'd normally ignore.

If the tournament goes to 96 teams, they will ignore it. And who could blame them? It'd flood the airwaves with basketball—mostly involving underachieving teams—and turn a flawless first weekend into a tedious, overwhelming first week. The NCAA may make more money in the immediate future, but it'd eventually come at the expense of cultural relevance.

With 96 teams, the tournament would go from completely perfect to a caricature of itself.

It's not that I'm paranoid about a college basketball apocalypse or ruining the regular season, or that this would somehow become a slippery slope. Expanding the NCAAs wouldn't ruin the games, and it wouldn't lead to some gargantuan 200 team tournament in twenty years. But it would test the attention of a lot of people that normally ignore college basketball, or sports altogether. And without your girlfriend, and your boss, and all the other people that jump on the bandwagon for three weeks... It just wouldn't be quite as special, you know?

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