Few things have aroused such vehement opposition as the proposed expansion of the NCAA tournament to 96 teams. Sure, a few dissenting voices have tried to champion the contrarian argument, but by and large, the consensus is why mess with perfection? After all, it's not as if anyone ever looked at March Madness and said "you know what this is missing -- the NIT field!".
Apparently incoming NCAA Chairman Gene Smith is among those lukewarm at best when it comes to expanding the NCAA tournament. Although Smith doesn't have a say on whether expansion happens or not -- the current batch of NCAA chairmen will make that decision -- Smith would be the one who would have to implement the first 96-team tournament, should they decide to go that route.
And, as ESPN's Andy Katz relays, Smith is on the record as preferring a more modest expansion -- although he has begun planning on how some of the dynamics of a 96-team tourney would work:
"I don't have a real perspective of what 96 would look like," Smith said. "I really don't, and I think most athletic directors and basketball people would say they would prefer it go to 68." [...]
"I'm a traditionalist, and I like the configuration we're in now," Smith said. "That's not to say there aren't some attractive elements to 96. I do see the excitement of doing something different."
If 96 were to occur, the most dramatic effect would be on the conference tournaments and their importance. That's why Smith is taking a college football approach to this matter. Smith is on board with what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested at the Final Four: There has to be an automatic qualifier for the regular-season champ. If that happens -- along with maintaining the current automatic bid for the tourney champs -- all conferences, from the Big Sky to the Big East, would have the chance to get at least two automatic berths.
But Smith said college football's regular season is important because it determines the bowls. To mimic that and make college basketball's regular season just as important, there must be an importance put on being the conference regular-season champ.
Smith admits that "no one" is actually talking about a 68-team tournament, and his plans for regular season conference champs to automatically qualify for a 96-team field -- something the NIT currently does -- sounds as if he's already put a decent amount of thought into how the larger field would work.
If Smith's bracing himself to carry out a 96-team tournament, it's probably time for fans to accept it as well. At this point, it certainly seems inevitable.