The NCAA listened to its customers and responded appropriately.
So I'm here to praise NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen and everybody else who helped bring Thursday's news that the NCAA tournament will A) "only" expand to 68 teams, B) be broadcast for the next 14 years via a partnership between CBS and TBS. It's great for me because I write about college basketball for CBS. It's great for you because you'll now see every game live on TV -- RIP: Greg Gumbel throwing an audience to Salt Lake City -- and you won't have to experience the greatly diminished regular season that a 96-team tournament would've created.
"A lot of people made assumptions that we were going to 96 when in fact we were doing our due diligence," said NCAA interim president Jim Isch. "No decision had been made."
I'll buy that, I guess. But it was clear at the NCAA's Final Four press conference that the preferred expansion number was 96, if possible. And though it might've been impossible to implement in time for next season in terms of getting arenas or domes lined up, nobody's going to convince me that the overwhelming sentiment against a 96-team field didn't play a role in the decision to only move to 68.
And that's not a shot at the NCAA.
That's a compliment, because too often in sports people don't listen. We want our World Series games to start earlier so kids can actually watch them, and we want our college football champion to be decided with a playoff so every school has a shot, even if it's a long shot, at eternal greatness. But baseball doesn't care what we want because it can make more money doing it the way it does it, and the BCS doesn't care what we want because the people who run the BCS are short-sighted idiots.
But the NCAA?
The NCAA got this right.
Yes, I would've rather cut the field from 65 to 64 than expand at all because, as we saw this past season, more average teams are put in than good teams left out. But a reduction in the field will never happen; I know that and you know that. So the best anybody could hope for was a relatively small expansion, which is exactly what we're getting (pending approval next week). A 68-team field in place this past season would've basically added something like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Illinois to the tournament, and that's fine. This model won't water down the regular season to any noticeable degree, and it won't turn the tournament into an event that includes almost everybody of relevance, good, bad and average.
Excellence will still be rewarded
Programs like UConn will still miss the tournament in down years.
NCAA.com: Expansion through the years
Projecting the field will still be a worthwhile exercise (if you're into that kind of stuff), and for that the NCAA should be commended. Granted, Isch and Shaheen wouldn't acknowledge that the criticism directed at the 96-team proposal moved them away from that plan, and neither promised the plan wouldn't be revisited in the future. But that's all beside the point because -- Hallelujah, praise the Lord! -- college basketball is safe for the immediate future.
Is 68 perfect?
But 68 is not 96.
And, for now, not 96 is good enough for me.