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March 16, 2010

Expansion of college basketball's NCAA Tournament would be beneficial to Tech's program

By: Jimmy Robertson

As most know, only an exclusive group of members receive invitations to college basketball’s Big Dance [a.k.a. the NCAA Tournament] these days.

But that might be changing. And Virginia Tech could be a beneficiary of the rumored changes.

The NCAA currently is mulling over whether to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion TV contract with CBS. The contract allows the NCAA to explore this option after this year’s NCAA Tournament.

As a result, the NCAA is exploring whether to expand the tournament to 96 teams and split the format between an over-the-air network, such as CBS or Fox, and a cable network, such as ESPN or Turner Sports. CBS and Turner apparently are in discussions for a joint bid, along with ESPN and Fox.

The logic behind exploring this is simply money. More games means a bigger contract, thus more money for the NCAA, assuming the networks are willing to pay for the new format.

Regardless of the reasoning, an expansion would be beneficial to Tech’s basketball program. The Hokies would have gotten into such a tournament the past two seasons, after the 2004-05 season and possibly after the 2003-04 season – Seth Greenberg’s first in Blacksburg – in which the Hokies went 15-14, 7-9 in Big East play. Instead, the Hokies have played in just one NCAA Tournament (three NITs) in that span.

Greenberg is a staunch proponent of expanding the tournament – “100 percent,” he said. – but not just for reasons that pertain to his program.

“There are four, five, six really, really elite teams,” he said. “But it’s so hard to distinguish because there are a lot of good teams that can win games in the NCAA Tournament. With the 31 automatic bids, you really don’t get the 65 best teams anyway.

“I think it would give teams that have good seasons — and you’re talking about student-athlete welfare — the experience to play in the NCAA Tournament. I think that speaks for itself if you’re really considering student-athlete welfare. That’s a great experience for those young people.”

If the NCAA decides to opt out and expand the tournament – and officials there refuse to comment – then it may run into some staunch opposition. Judging from the reactions of fans on various Internet message boards and from media members, they absolutely hate the idea, and they bring up some valid points.

For starters, they feel it cheapens the regular season. They feel you will see fewer marquee non-conference games (e.g. UNC-Texas) and that the conference games down the stretch will be less meaningful.

Also, they argue that more doesn’t mean better. No one watches the NBA during the 82-game regular season, in part, because 16 teams make the playoffs (out of 30 teams). In contrast, only 12 NFL teams make the playoffs in a league with just 16 regular-season games, which puts a premium on winning every Sunday afternoon. Thus, the NFL’s TV ratings are soaring.

Most of all, they just love March Madness. They love filling out their brackets and picking upsets. They love taking off on Thursday and Friday to watch the first round.

But Greenberg’s point is a valid one. Basketball players start practicing in mid-October and bust their tails for almost six months, yet they get judged on one month’s performance – March. So why not reward more players with that NCAA Tournament experience since they put so much into a sport so many love?

“There will still be teams on the bubble,” Greenberg said. “Yeah, the 97th team is going to be on the bubble. That’s just the way it is. But I think it will give more people a chance to have that experience.

“These people don’t remember when it was 32 or 16 teams. Maybe there was a segment of basketball society who thought, ‘What do you mean expand to 32 teams?’ But, you know, people adjust. And the one thing about college basketball is people have great passion for the game and the madness that is March.”

Greenberg understands the challenges facing Virginia Tech. He is building a program in a rural area dominated by fans’ love for football. But they are coming around to basketball, and their fervor for home games, combined with NCAA Tournament appearances, would speed the building process.

So expanding the tournament would be good for Tech.

And who knows, it might make a great tournament even better for college basketball fans.