Chatter From the Fourth Estate: NCAA 68Posted by rtmsf on April 23rd, 2010
If you’re like us today, you’re probably feeling a little bit like you do when you realize that the blue lights in your rear view mirror weren’t intended for you even though you were about +15 over the speed limit. As the friendly patrolman roars by on your left, that adrenaline-fueled fear of getting a ticket (or worse) melts into a somewhat euphoric state of well-being as you realize that you’ve dodged a terribly unpleasant situation. We all spent the last two months lying hogtied on the tracks watching the 96-team locomotive steaming toward us, and the surprising (shocking?) news that the NCAA will instead move to only a 68-team scenario feels like Clint Eastwood or Rambo or freakin’ Michael Cera stepped in at the last moment to save the day. Perspective is everything.
Yet imagine for a moment if we’d never heard about the 96-team debacle from the inner circles of the NCAA. Without that particularly bilious perspective to abhor, excoriate, lambaste and dread for months leading up to today, the news that the NCAA was expanding to 68 teams would probably have been met with complete and utter derision across the board. Four play-in games, pfshaw! Yet when considered against the alternative, today’s news was met with guarded optimism and in some cases downright celebration. Was this a brilliant strategem of managing expectations pulled off on us, the unsuspecting public, by the cunning NCAA (probably not), or simply a realization that the organization was treading ever so closely to killing off the goose that laid the golden egg (more likely)? Either way, the decision is a reasonable and defensible one that we can all live with, so let’s get to the business of reviewing it now and analyzing it to death in coming weeks.
Here’s what some of the best in the business have to say…
Luke Winn, CNNSI – More importantly, it represents a major victory for college basketball. The NCAA did the right thing. While I’d prefer a pure, 64-team format without play-in games, 68 teams is immensely more palatable than 96. The sanctity of the NCAA tournament has been preserved for the time being, and that’s something to celebrate, even if Jim Isch, the NCAA’s interim president, admitted that 68 wasn’t guaranteed to be the format for the entire length of the new TV deal. [...] Public reaction had to have played at least some role in them settling on 68 rather than 96. The public’s response to the 96 idea was overwhelmingly negative, and I wonder if Isch, Shaheen, CBS and Turner didn’t want to be regarded as the villains who ruined college sports’ crown jewel. [...] Eventually, we’ll get back to worrying about how Isch left the expansion door open by saying two words: “for now.” But for now, at least, we can rejoice. The NCAA tournament has been saved.
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News – Turns out, they were listening. Nobody came out and said the public’s revulsion at the prospect of a 96-team field was a factor in settling on 68, but if you’d loved the idea like chocolate-chip cookies, we’d be talking about a far different NCAA Tournament next March. It wasn’t at the start of negotiations that someone with CBS/Turner suggested a 68-team tournament would be workable with the dollar amounts being discussed. That came after the general public declared 96 teams to be a product no more appealing than the XFL. [...] How should a 68-team tournament work? That’s fairly obvious. Although it might be most fair to have the teams at the bottom of the field play for the right to be No. 16 seeds, it’s hard to imagine anyone at CBS or Turner Sports, the networks that just agreed to pay roughly $740 million annually to televise the tournament, being thrilled about showing four games that this year might have involved such matchups as Robert Morris-Winthrop or Morgan State-East Tennessee State. The solution would be to have the last eightat-large teams play for the right to be seeded into the middle of the field—as No. 12s or No. 11s. This season, that might have meant Virginia Tech-Minnesota and Illinois-Florida. People would watch those games. CBS and Turner saved us from the dread of a 96-team tournament. They deserve something for their money.
Jeff Goodman, Fox Sports – It was also an opportunity to water down the tourney by adding another 30 or so teams that just aren’t worthy of inclusion. That’s an opportunity worth missing, especially after this past season, when the small number of bubble teams had little-to-no justification for getting into the Big Dance. Just imagine if the field were at 96 this past season. A mediocre North Carolina team would have been a virtual lock, and the woeful Pac-10 would have had at least half of its representatives included in the field. [...] The bottom line here is that the integrity of the NCAA tournament hasn’t been compromised, fans will get an opportunity to see all the games and the regular season will still have some meaning.
Rob Dauster, Ballin is a Habit – When the NCAA announced that they were going to expand to just 68 teams, they made sure that games played in November and December were still meaningful. They made sure that teams still needed to play a difficult non-conference schedule — which sets up some of the best early season, non-conference match-ups — if they want to secure a bid to the tournament. They ensured that there would still be fans interested in watching those games. Those early season games are the ones that ESPN broadcasts. A 68 team tournament also means that the conference tournaments and championship week are still as important as ever. Again, those are games that ESPN owns the rights too. So while ESPN lost out on their bid for the NCAA Tournament, they still won today because the college basketball games that they do air still matter. There will still be great early season match-ups. Championship week will be just as important as ever. And there will still be eyes on the television sets when there are games on ESPN.
John Gasaway, Basketball Prospectus – Upon hearing the news my first reaction was a shout of joy. My second reaction was that, with the shining and outstanding exceptions of John Ourand and Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal, the college hoops punditry was absolutely dreadful at their jobs throughout this entire 80-day saga, one that started with a report on February 1 saying expansion to 96 teams was “a done deal.” [...] But the larger problem with yelling Greed! and Stupidity! at the NCAA was that it was entirely beside the point. The tournament could have been expanded by wholly selfless and highly intelligent people–and it still would have been a terrible and needless mistake. Not because we know for a fact that a 96-team field really would be such an unwatchable mess but because there is no earthly reason to jeopardize what an amazing number of people already agree is a nearly perfect thing. In their haste to hit the trusty and well-worn ”LOL NCAA” button, many writers lost sight of this story’s central truth. The tournament is the thing.
Gary Parrish, CBS Sports – The NCAA got this right. Yes, I would’ve rather cut the field from 65 to 64 than expand at all because, as we saw this past season, more average teams are put in than good teams left out. But a reduction in the field will never happen; I know that and you know that. So the best anybody could hope for was a relatively small expansion, which is exactly what we’re getting (pending approval next week). A 68-team field in place this past season would’ve basically added something like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Illinois to the tournament, and that’s fine. This model won’t water down the regular season to any noticeable degree, and it won’t turn the tournament into an event that includes almost everybody of relevance, good, bad and average. Excellence will still be rewarded. Programs like UConn will still miss the tournament in down years.
Pat Forde, ESPN - Whatever the case, I’ll give the NCAA credit. It either was more savvy or more receptive than I had given the institution credit for previously. Either the NCAA played us perfectly to get what it wanted all along, or it retained an open mind and listened when every non-coach with a voice screamed in reaction to the specter of 96 teams, “Don’t do it!” Compared to the star-spangled debacle of 96, we’re almost giddy at the expansion to 68. It’s like resigning yourself to eating an entire can of dog food, then only being handed a spoonful. All things considered, pretty tasty. [...] I still believe the NCAA wants to expand to a 96-team field. Whether it didn’t feel it had the backing of the Division I conferences or the public at large, it didn’t go forward with that today. But I don’t think they’ve given up on 96 by any means. Expect an ongoing backroom dialogue in order to build support for the idea. After wearing us down and warming us up to it, I suspect they’ll jam it down our throats eventually. For today, however, we’ve downgraded our projected Alpo intake to a spoonful. I’ll bark to that.