Why the ACC proposal for a 346-team NCAA basketball tournament won't work

Pete Thamel
·5 min read

It’s not surprising that the ACC basketball coaches unanimously voted to support an all-inclusive NCAA tournament on Wednesday. As Stadium first reported, the ACC coaches are pushing for the NCAA to include all 346 eligible Division I teams for the men’s tournament this year.

After the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the thought is that this would be a basketball bacchanal to welcome back one of the great American sporting events next March. Expand the 68-team tournament by 278 schools and give every player One Shining Moment.

While the spirit of the idea makes sense and the NCAA should be exploring every avenue, this idea has little chance to work in reality. Think Canisius winning the national title long odds. Think Northern Arizona cutting down the nets. Think Texas Southern in the Final Four. You get the idea.

This isn’t the first time an all-in NCAA tournament has been bandied around. But it’s probably the worst time. Did UNC’s Roy Williams not glance out his office window to a campus with no students attending class before voting for this idea? Did NC State’s Kevin Keatts and Virginia Tech’s Mike Young not realize their football teams are struggling to get a home opener played? The idea of expanding the NCAA tournament at this very moment comes off as well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve amid an uncertain campus climate.

“Of all the things going on in the world and in higher education, that this is a priority is something that is going to be debated in a lot of board rooms,” said Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA executive who ran the tournament for years. “You’ve got basically every parent in the country that’s paying full tuition for their child to be in an uncertain academic environment. There’s very real-life, liability and logistic situations. You do have to at a certain point realize – what are the priorities here?”

The priority for the NCAA should be to simply just to hold a tournament, something it was unable to do earlier this year. The fate of the NCAA essentially hinges on the 2021 tournament being played, amid a dark time of layoffs and furloughs for the organization.

A basketball with a logo is shown before a first round men's college basketball game between Minnesota and Louisville in 2019. (AP)
A basketball with a logo is shown before a first round men's college basketball game between Minnesota and Louisville in 2019. (AP)

To say the NCAA needs to hold a tournament to stay in existence may be a bit hyperbolic. But no one wants to see what happens when it cuts past the bone. Nor do leagues like the Big East, Atlantic-10 or WCC that rely on NCAA units to survive.

The notion of a bigger NCAA tournament making considerably more money is basically a fallacy. The TV dynamics of this would be considerably fraught. That’s essentially because college basketball is already set up as an all-inclusive tournament due to the conference tournaments, it’s just not all packaged under the same NCAA umbrella.

If ESPN or Fox or NBC owns the rights to a league tournament that wouldn’t be played in favor of this all-inclusive idea, they’d likely get some piece of televising the early rounds in exchange. But if anyone thinks those companies have gobs more money to throw at what would essentially be repackaged content is naïve. TV networks are tightening the belt like the rest of us. And the only real value in this still comes from the final 64 games. This idea would create a lot more inventory that’s the quality of the First Four rather than Final Four, and no smart network is opening their wallet for First Four content during a pandemic.

Shaheen also points out not to underestimate that women’s basketball would expect the same treatment. Holding an all-inclusive women’s tournament would be virtually impossible and likely a financial drain, as there’d be little incentive to televise the early rounds.

As we’ve been reminded during the Big Ten’s scuffling the past month, decisions of this caliber are decided by college presidents – not ACC basketball coaches. There’s a better chance of Will Wade being voted to the head of the NABC Ethics Committee than a group of college presidents – in this case, the NCAA Board of Governors would likely be involved – coming to the conclusion that they should expand the tournament.

The NCAA pushed fall sports championships back to the spring and its chief medical officer has warned of a “narrow path” to play sports in the fall. The NCAA is a group that’s equal parts risk-averse and litigation-scared, which makes them highly unlikely to pull a philosophical 180. How do you cancel fall championships and then massively expand your most prominent one a few months later?

What will the world look like in about six months when the NCAA tournament is supposed to start? Well, no one is sure. There could be a vaccine and things could be much better. We could be in the same situation where are now, with uncertainty shrouding daily decisions that we took for granted. Rapid daily testing could make this all much more feasible, but without much significant television reward why take any risk?

The fact that no one can project what things will look like means that the NCAA should probably focus on executing the current form of the NCAA tournament, as a tournament that’s five times bigger invites that much more chance of problems.

Without billions of more dollars available or the assurance of a vaccine, the idea should remain where it began – a well-intentioned idea from coaches trying to help out a sport that needs a pick-me-up.

This is an idea that could have well been drawn up on a napkin at the bar at the Final Four. Let’s hope we’re all there in Indianapolis to toast the successful completion of 2021 tournament and chuckle about the absurdity of this ACC idea.

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