NCAA: 96-team field is best fit

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA appears to be on the verge of expanding the men's basketball tournament to 96 teams.

Insisting that nothing has been decided, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen nonetheless outlined a detailed plan Thursday that included the logistics and timing of a 96-team tournament, how much time off the players would have and even revenue distribution.

Shaheen said the NCAA looked at keeping the current 65-team field and expanding to 68 or 80 teams, but decided the bigger bracket was the best fit logistically and financially.

It would be played during the same time frame as the current three-week tournament and include first-round byes for 32 teams.

Although the plan still needs to be approved by the Division I Men's Basketball Committee and passed on to the board of directors, most of the details already seem to be in place.

"We needed to make sure that we did everything possible to use the due diligence window to understand ourselves and understand what the future would hold," Shaheen said. "So that's what we're doing, that's the process we're undertaking. We've been handling it every day for the last several months and years, as we studied for the benefit of the organization."

The men's tournament last expanded in 2001, adding one team to the 64-team field that was set in 1985.

The 96-team tournament would likely envelop the 32-team NIT, though Shaheen said no decision has been made on what to do with the NCAA's other, independently operated season-ending tournament.

The new format would start two days later than the current 65-team field because it would eliminate the Tuesday play-in game and would conclude on the same day, a Monday. It would be played at one fewer venue -- again, the play-in game -- and the NCAA says it would include no additional travel time for teams.

The first-round games for the 64 non-bye teams would take place on Thursday and Friday, with the winners playing the top eight seeds in each region on Saturday and Sunday. Winners on Saturday would likely play again on Tuesday, and the Sunday winners on Wednesday.

Those winners would then move on to the regionals, playing alternate days starting on Thursday. Shaheen said the NCAA hasn't decided on whether to keep the same sites for second and first-round games or to make the midweek sites the same as the regionals.

He also said the amount of time student-athletes would be out of school would be roughly the same as the current model, but teams that play in the opening round and keep winning would actually be out an entire week of school instead of just a few days.

"On a 96-team basis -- vs. the current 97 teams that the NCAA conducts through the championship and the NIT, for example -- you have, on a side-by-side basis, a reduction in the travel time," Shaheen said.

Adding teams to the NCAA tournament could create some monumentally lopsided games, or seeds in the 30s and 90s playing each other. There might be less importance on the regular season and conference tournaments; the resume wouldn't need to be padded so much if more teams get in.

"I don't see any watering down at all," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "I think there are a number of teams playing in the NIT that could have gotten in, and I think there will be more people and more excitement with more teams in."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he would like to see regular-season and conference tournament champions get automatic bids to the NCAA tournament.

"The regular season would mean something," he said. "There would still be bubble teams and all that, but we would reward those teams accordingly. And I would still like the conference tournament champions. They make a lot of money and celebrate each conference. I think it's a way of each conference celebrating their conference, which is a good thing."

Any plans to expand the tournament hinge on the NCAA's $6 billion television deal with CBS.

The 11-year deal, signed in 1999, has a mutual opt-out until July 31. The NCAA has already spoken with numerous networks about expansion, so the opt-out is at least on the table, and adding 32 more teams is certainly going to bring in more revenue.

The proposal is strictly for the men's tournament. Another NCAA committee is looking at whether to expand the women's tournament or keep it in the current format.