Expansion to 96-team NCAA tournament appears to be imminent

It has been a topic of discussion all season, but now a move to expand the NCAA tournament to 96 teams seems imminent.

Although NCAA Vice President Greg Shaheen said this week that nothing has been decided, he described in detail how the tournament would operate under the potential expansion from the current 65-team field.

The NCAA also has considered leaving the tournament at its current size, expanding to 68 teams and to 80 teams, but it has deemed the larger model the best fit. In it, 32 teams would receive first-round byes, and the tournament still would be conducted in a three-week timeframe.

Questions were raised in Shaheen’s meeting with reporters here Thursday about the amount of class time athletes would miss and whether the field would be watered down.

The first-round games for the 64 non-bye teams would take place Thursday and Friday, with winners advancing to the second round Saturday and Sunday. The third round would be Tuesday and Wednesday.

Teams advancing to the Tuesday-Wednesday games could miss nearly an entire week of classes instead of a few days.

Concerns also were raised about how competitive the expanded field would be and the effects on regular-season schedules and conference tournaments. In the current field, “the champion typically does not come from a certain portion of the field,” Shaheen said. “However, that opportunity exists. The argument that was given [before the expansion to 64 teams for the 1985 tournament] was, ‘Why have a 12 or 13 seed, because they will not have a chance to win the national championship?’”

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said if the tournament expands he would like to see a conference’s regular-season and tournament champions each receive automatic bids. With the exception of the Ivy League, which does not hold a conference tournament, only tournament champions earn automatic bids.

“There would still be bubble teams and all that,” he said, “but we would reward those teams accordingly.”

Tournament expansion could depend on whether the NCAA opts out of its $6-billion television deal with CBS, which runs through 2013, at the end of the summer in order to pursue a bigger payoff with another long-term deal.

The expansion proposal applies only to the men’s tournament. A separate committee is surveying the women’s field. The NIT, which is owned by the NCAA, would determine on its own how to proceed.