Jim Delany might not have any influence over the NCAA's impending decision on expansion, but he is the sort of in-the-know person likely being kept well-informed on the NCAA's internal deliberations, and Wednesday, he hit the world with a little taste of bad news. When discussing the chances that the NCAA will actually expand the 65-team tournament to a 96-team field, Delany said he thought such an expansion was both "probable" and "likely." Two adjectives, one meaning: uh oh.
This is, obviously, bad news for those of us who have yet to hear a really good argument -- besides more money, of course -- for why the NCAA tournament needs to add 30 teams no one really wants to see play in the NCAA tournament (except for those 30 schools' coaches and athletic directors, who would very much enjoy expansion, thanks). It's not that expansion is an inherently bad idea. Maybe it'd be all right! Maybe it wouldn't really affect the NCAA tournament at all. Maybe we're making too big a deal out of it. But when you have something as good as the NCAA tournament in your back pocket -- as close to competitive perfection as any contest in all of sports -- why on Earth would you alter it? "Don't mess with a good thing" is an overused cliché in this discussion, but it applies. The NCAA tournament is awesome. Why screw it up?
Delany's major concern -- and probably the reason he decided to speak on the record about the ongoing expansion discussions -- is the regular season. Delany is worried that the expanded tournament will make the regular season less important, which means fewer people will tune in, and the Big Ten will lose money, and so on.
Fortunately for Delany, this is one of the worst anti-expansion arguments out there. Teams still have to make the tournament. Even an expanded field will have a bubble. (Will this bubble be as fun to parse? Doubtful. But the bubble would still exist.) And anyway, coaches and players compete for conference titles and want to beat their rivals, regardless of postseason implications. Indiana fans are not going to suddenly stop caring about the Purdue game, and Michigan State fans are not suddenly going to stop watching the Spartans try to win another Big Ten championship. Those things are still important now, and they'll still be important when the tournament is an unrecognizable morass of mediocrity.
Other concerns, though -- that the tournament itself will be less immediately competitive, less prestigious, and less interesting -- are still hanging over the whole thing. In many ways, the NCAA couldn't have picked a worse time to discuss expansion. Look at the 2010 NCAA tournament. It contained one of the least-worthy batches of bubble teams in recent memory; there were barely 65 entertaining teams for this bracket, let alone 96. (Just look at that 96-team field!) The teams that did make it in, however, have provided upsets and unrivaled entertainment from the very first whistle. Is changing this formula really in the NCAA's best long-term interest? Even with the money? Really?