The dust, as they say, has settled.
With Thursday's announcement that the First Four would remain in Dayton, Ohio, the site of the opening round for the past 10 seasons, the NCAA officially completed its NCAA tournament expansion. The number of teams is settled. The format is settled. The brand -- "First Four" -- is settled. The TV contract is settled. The location, as of yesterday, is settled. As an overdramatic comic book villian might say: It is done.
And for all the fervor of the past six months, all the debates and confusion and outright whinging, there's really only one conclusion to be drawn from the NCAA's final expansion product. It just makes sense.
At every step, the NCAA had the opportunity to do something crazy, something unpopular, or both. It didn't. Instead, the NCAA's tournament expansion path was marked primarily by one wholly welcome quality: reason. Most college hoops observers would agree. We did not see that one coming.
For the sake of perpetuity, though, it's worth remembering. So let's take it from the top.
Step One: How many teams? 96? Please tell me it won't be 96. (But seriously, please tell me it won't be 96.)
Remember that? By April, the pertinent rumors surrounding NCAA tournament expansion were settled. They originated, as all things do, on the Internet, where they quickly caused mass hysteria: The NCAA was going to expand to 96 teams whether you liked it or not. The only thing left was convincing you why you did.
Things didn't get any more promising when the NCAA, after months of silence on the issue, finally addressed it at the Final Four on April 1. In the midst of its traditional state-of-the-NCAA speech, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen took the podium, where he proceeded to update reporters on the state of the deliberations over NCAA tournament expansion. This did not go well.
Shaheen introduced several options -- including the 68-team expansion we now know and love -- but spent a large majority of his time discussing the various merits of the 96-team format. It was somewhat horrifying, not only for Shaheen, who was mercilessly grilled, but for those of us who, for very good reason, became convinced yet again that the NCAA was convinced the best way to wring more money from its new television rights negotiations would be to create more games.
It didn't seem to matter that 96 teams would dilute the beauty that is the NCAA tournament, that it would be akin to stuffing a bunch of barely watchable NIT games onto the front end of what many consider the best postseason competition in sports. It didn't seem to matter that reporters were furious, that fans were up in arms, and that no one could come up with a really good, basketball-oriented reason for expansion. It was about money. It was that simple.
And then, 22 days later, the NCAA did something nobody predicted: It made the reasonable choice.
Rather than expand to 96 teams, the NCAA expanded to 68. It would add three more teams -- which three remained uncertain -- and create four "opening round" games. Gone was the notion of a No. 22 seed battling a No. 1; gone was the notion of your nice, neat, NCAA tournament bracket being torn to unwieldy shreds by the addition of 32 marginal outfits. Instead, sweet simplicity prevailed.
Why? Money. The NCAA announced its limited expansion the same day it announced its new TV rights deal -- a $10.8 billion agreement over 14 years with CBS and Turner, good for an average yearly increase of about $200 million from television rights alone. The NCAA tournament is the organization's largest and most important revenue source, and the NCAA was able to get that money without fundamentally altering the tournament format. Given the damage tournament expansion could have wrought on the casual fan, and given the money available without all those added teams, the reasonable thing to do was keep the tournament as-is. It's a guaranteed money-maker already. Why tinker with the format?
Which means the NCAA accomplished the following: Achieved some measure of expansion, landed a gigantic TV deal that will buoy the organization for the next decade-and-a-half, kept the tournament largely intact, and -- perhaps most awesomely, a word I just made up, because this next part is truly that awesome -- ensured that every single NCAA tournament game would be televised on one of CBS or Turner Sports' various networks.
Every game on TV. A ton of cash. The same tournament. Perhaps the NCAA will expand the tournament in the future, but it's impossible to argue that for now, the folks in Indianapolis reached the most reasonable compromise possible. They got it right. And that was just step one.
Step Two: Who plays in the play-in ... I mean, opening round ... I mean, First Four ... games anyway?
Settling on the nature of expansion and securing that new TV contract was the hard part -- hence the large block of text you just admirably soldiered through -- but it was just the beginning. The NCAA now had another choice to make: How would the extra teams factor in to the new-look tournament? Who would play in those games? What seeds would they receive?
There appeared to be two options. The first: Adding three more play-in games between No. 16 and No. 17 seeds, similar to the "opening round" game held in Dayton every year. The second, and more radical: Eschewing the low-seed format altogether and, in what could be a canny business decision, making the last eight at-large teams vie for No. 11, No. 12, and No. 13 seeds.
There were benefits for each, though more for the latter scenario. The last eight at-large teams always include some high-profile bubble teams with dedicated, travel-happy fan bases; in 2009-10, this group would have included Illinois, Virginia Tech, California, Florida, and a variety of other big-time programs. There's no better way to drum up interest in play-in games than by featuring teams the casual fan has actually heard of. This would have been a big deal.
Here's where the NCAA got reasonable again. If you want to be generous, you could even call it a stroke of genius: It did both. As you no doubt know, two of the opening round games will feature the traditional No. 16/17 format. The other two will feature the last four at-large teams fighting for seeds on the Nos. 11, 12, and 13 lines.
The risk to any compromise is that by trying to please everybody, you make everyone angry, but that's not what happened here. Instead, everyone's just happy. The NCAA and fans get two high-profile games, a few small mid-majors get to avoid the stigma of the opening round, and the marginal at-large teams that would have missed the tournament in past years will have to fight to get to the Thursday and Friday games. And the NCAA even came up with a handy, easy-to-remember brand name: the First Four. It's hard to see anything wrong with this solution.
Which, of course, brings us to step three.
Step Three: So, where?
Again, the choice came down to two options: Keep the opening round -- or First Four -- in Dayton, or do something crazy and radical and ultimately more fun. That option -- a dream scenario which would have seen the NCAA set up four separate regions for the First Four in historic basketball sites like The Palestra and Hinkle Fieldhouse -- would have been the exciting call.
In the end, the NCAA chose Dayton. It's the boring and uninspiring choice, but it's a fair one. The past 10 years, Dayton has ardently supported the play-in game; the city regularly turns out more than 10,000 fans for a game pitting two teams that have a less than 1 percent chance of advancing past the No. 1 seed that awaits them in the tournament bracket. It's hard to fault the NCAA for rewarding that sort of dedication.
It wasn't the sexy choice, but it was the reasonable move.
Upon review, that type of decision characterizes the NCAA's entire approach to NCAA tournament expansion. It may not always have been intentional, and it may not be permanent -- the NCAA has left the door to a future 96-team expansion wide open -- but it was almost universally intelligent, receptive and, above all, reasonable.
Would the NCAA tournament be better with 64 teams? Sure. Is the current setup better than anything we could have conceivably expected in early 2010? Absolutely. In the end, that's thanks to an NCAA men's basketball committee and an NCAA leadership that did the prudent thing at almost every turn.
Nice work, guys. Now don't screw it up.