Change is comin': Get ready for a 96-team field

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Do me a favor, grab your NCAA Tournament bracket and take a good look at it.

Notice the beauty of its symmetry. Admire how snugly it plugs into that 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper you are holding.

Take a good long look at it because odds are we'll be looking at a whole new animal next year.

Sometime next month, NCAA interim president Jim Isch and the 10-member Division I basketball committee will meet to discuss tournament expansion to 96 teams.

The timing is perfect for several reasons.

Since the last tournament expansion (from 53 to 64 teams in 1985) the number of D-I basketball teams has grown from 248 to 343.

The NCAA has a July 31 deadline in its current $6 billion deal with CBS where the organization can opt out of the final three years of the contract. The tournament generates nearly 90 percent of the NCAA's total revenue. The suits are aware that in this economy any new deal they negotiate will probably be for less money if the tourney remains in its current format.

Simply put: 96 teams are worth more than 64 (65 if you count the play-in game).

Don't feel sorry for the NCAA -- it's far from broke. But the organization also doesn't want to step back from a $6 billion contract. It wants, it needs, to sweeten the pot.

That's where ESPN comes in. Moving the tournament to cable is the only way to increase the contract money. ESPN is licking its chops to take a crack at landing the new contract.

And we all know what ESPN wants, ESPN usually gets.

In addition to boosting its bottom line, the NCAA would also be able to shed itself of the unprofitable NIT.

The NIT, which the NCAA bought in 2005, has been losing money for years. There are 32 teams in this year's NIT -- do the math, 32 + 64 = 96 -- meaning the NIT would likely disappear, folded neatly into the expanded NCAA field.

Two problems solved at once.

The majority of college basketball coaches love the proposed expansion. It would make putting a tourney game on their resumes that much easier. The media seem to hate the idea, griping about a watered down field and unworthy teams dancing.

None of that matters.

This is all about the "benjamins," and it is probably going to happen next year.

So, how would this new and improved tournament format work?

Seeding would expand from 16 to 24 and the top eight seeds in all four regions (32 teams) would receive first-round byes.

The remaining 16 seeds (64 teams) would take part in play-in games to reduce that field to 32 teams.

The games would likely be played on Tuesday and Wednesday with the Tuesday winners then playing half of the teams that got byes on Thursday. Wednesday's winners would face the remaining bye teams on Friday.

One extra round of 32 games, two extra days of basketball, and then we're back on track with 64 teams.

Oh, did I mention two extra days of television revenue? Like it or not, this is why tournament expansion is inevitable.

We'll adapt, we always have. Take the week off next March instead of just Thursday and Friday.

And save your 2010 brackets for posterity's sake. Because change is coming to an NCAA basketball tournament near you.


Terry Lewis is a freelance sportswriter for The Albany Herald. If you have questions or comments about this column, please e-mail him at