The NCAA, March, and True Madness

By Chuck Carlton
Updated: April 7, 2010

DALLAS — After three weeks of buzzer-beaters, broken brackets and instant fame for Ali Farokhmanesh, the men’s NCAA Tournament delivered Monday.

Duke survived Butler, Gordon Hayward’s half-court near-miss and all the Hoosiers parallels, 61-59. The teams produced a satisfying emotional payoff and water-cooler talk for the week, drawing 48 million viewers and generating the highest ratings in five years.

Savor the memory, because the NCAA has a different payoff in mind, one that will dramatically change the tournament and probably provide a 96-team field.

Forget March Madness. Get ready for the newest upgrade, March Madne$$, maybe as soon as next year. Never mind the inevitable 12-seed over 5-seed upset. Wrap your mind around a 22 over an 11.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, an influential college power broker, called a 96-team tournament “probable.” If the dollar signs seem cynical, they are also most appropriate.

The NCAA seems poised to exercise a clause that enables it to re-open the $6 billion, 11-year TV contract it signed with CBS in 1999 and alter the face of the tournament. One reason, according to the NCAA, is the chance for greater participation.

At the same time, money remains a driving concern.

“In reality, as you all know, this is a contract that provides coverage, exposure and opportunity for our 88 championships across our 400,000-plus student-athletes,” NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen said last week.

“So the responsibility here is tall. So is assessing those opportunities, making sure that we are able to provide those into the future was a key priority, as well.”

Translation: the men’s tournament provides much of the funding for all three divisions of the NCAA. In a presentation that at times seemed to double as a justification, Shaheen explained how the expansion model would work.

Division I athletic directors, including the Big 12 last month, have already been briefed on the model. Several said they expected implementation sooner rather than later.

The tournament would start as usual on a Thursday/Friday, with the teams seeded 9 through 24 playing.

“If you were to have a 96-team tournament, it would mean that the top 32 teams, in essence the 1 through 8 seeds across four regions, would receive a bye and not compete until Saturday or Sunday of the first week,” Shaheen said.

The second week could feature teams playing a compressed schedule.

When A Season on the Brink author John Feinstein pursued the possibility of an entire week of missed class time, Shaheen provided an unintentional tribute to the timeliness of Abbott and Costello.

Shaheen said the NCAA did not know what the financial impact would be. Presumably, the organization wouldn’t be pursuing change unless it has studied this at length. Best guess: CBS will continue to televise the tournament, although a cable partner (not ESPN) will probably sweeten the deal on the early rounds.

Remember, the NCAA assigns people to monitor drinking cups at courtside to ensure the proper Vitamin Water logo. The NCAA certainly isn’t going to make a decision of this magnitude without talking to CBS, which provides more than 95 percent of its operations funding.

Other details remain to be worked out: Would all regular-season champs receive bids? Would the suspense be gone from power conference tournaments? Would more teams dilute the tournament?

Would the mid-majors like Butler be represented in greater proportion? The NIT, which would probably be folded into the NCAA Tournament, has averaged 18 mid-majors for the last four years in its 32-team field.

“Certainly the regular season, the impact on the regular season would be of issue,” said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, head of the men’s selection committee. “Conference tournaments would be of issue.”

ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb has warned about the “law of unintended consequences.” Power conference coaches who don’t make the expanded field will automatically be on the hot seat, just like their football counterparts who fail to qualify for bowls.

The Big East sent 12 of 16 teams to the NCAA or NIT this season. Just one Big 12 team with a winning record, Texas Tech, failed to make the NCAA field.

There’s also an argument for not messing with success.

Consider the CBS trademark “One Shining Moment” video, a time-honored tournament tribute. New vocals by Jennifer Hudson drew significant negative online reaction overnight.

Yes, it’s possible to mess with near-perfection.