Since the NCAA's apparent intention to expand the NCAA tournament to 96 teams became public last week, pretty much all we've heard from those in positions of relative power is that this is an awesome idea. These people are mostly coaches. It's obvious why coaches would want to expand the tournament -- more teams in the tourney means greater opportunity to have a "successful season," which means fewer chances to get fired. Also, you know, more money.
What will be more interesting is hearing how those with actual power -- NCAA officials and conference commissioners, primarily -- will react to the idea. Saturday, the Sporting News got one such person on the record. It's the Big Ten's Jim Delaney, and Mr. Delaney seems far less enthusiastic about the idea than your average major program coach:
I certainly hadn't anticipated it was a likely occurrence. What would it do to revenue sharing? Who would go? I just thought on the big issues we hadn't really studied in-depth nor had opportunities to weigh in on that issue.
[...] I don't know about threatening the popularity of the tournament as much as having more dilution of the regular season. I do think the tournament is elegant in the way that it's structured, but I'm more concerned about, "What does this mean for the sport of basketball from November through March?" I don't think it would make the tournament less popular. It would affect it in some ways. There'd be different kinds of competition in the first and second round.
A lot of our interest is local: People coming to our games, being interested in our championships. I've always seen the tournament as a great event, but I've never said or believed that it didn't have a negative effect on the regular season.
Whether you agree with it or not, you must admit that Delaney's concern about the regular season is one the NCAA needs to take seriously. Think about it. The current perception of the college basketball season is that the die-hard fans pay attention throughout the year, while the casual fans swoop in for the NCAA tournament when things get really juicy. And why not, right? If I was a casual college hoops fan I'm probably not going to watch all of the regular season games anyway. I might wait until, say, the day after the Super Bowl to really start getting into the college game. I already think the regular season is unimportant. Now you're telling me my team has even less riding on the regular season? You're going to give me even less reason to tune in in November and December and January? I can be even lazier now? Sweet! See you in March.
This is the primary concern conference commissioners will have to take into consideration as they go about ratifying NCAA tournament expansion, which they seem likely to do. Is the marginal benefit of the extra teams in the tournament worth the marginal cost of diluting the major conference regular seasons? (I know these terms because I took one semester of Econ in college. I barely remember what they mean, but I like to drop them into conversation from time to time. It makes me feel smart.)
That will be the crux of Jim Delaney's decision. In the meantime, the NCAA and the parties it comprises would do well to take a step back, listen to fans and media types, and give this thing a thorough look. Tournament expansion seems exciting enough, but it's not a -- wait for it -- slam dunk. (Sorry.)