Indianapolis—Yes, we are attending the Super Bowl of college basketball and tonight the story lines abound: Duke will go for its fourth national championship and its first since 2001, under Coach K against Butler. Rated rival North Carolina has cut down the nets twice (2005, 2009) since their hated rival won a title. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is in his 11th Final Four, which ties Carolina’s Dean Smith. One more for K and he passes the Dean for No. 2 on the all-time list.
Butler is playing six miles from its campus. Their playing facility, Hinkle Fieldhouse, was where the championship game in “Hoosiers” was filmed. CBS must be tempted to bring in Gene Hackman and let him walk onto the floor and measure the baskets like he did in the movie that is beloved by all hoopsters.
Understand this about Butler. This isn’t tiny Milan taking on Muncie Central for the Indiana state high school championship in 1954. Butler is really good and is well coached by a guy who looks like he should be a study hall monitor instead of a coach with an 89-14 record. They can beat Duke if they are healthy and the Blue Devils are little cold from behind the arc. We’re expecting another crowd of over 70,000 at Lucas Oil Field.
But enough about hoops. That’s tonight. I’m here today to tell you what’s going on behind the scenes of tonight’s national championship game. I am not big into hyperbole, but you need to know that two things are being discussed that could, in the next six months, could radically change the college athletics landscape as we know it.
The first, of course, is the potential expansion of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament field from 65 to 96 teams. The NCAA floated that trial balloon on Thursday and for the first time gave details about how it could work. That effort was met with criticism that turned into downright derision from fans and media. Why take one of the best sporting events in the world and risk hurting it by trying to shoe-horn another round of games into the same three-week calendar?
You already know the answer. It’s about the money. It’s always been about the money. The NCAA has three more years on its current 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS but has the option to opt out of those years and put the tournament back up for bid. Needless to say there are other suitors, like ESPN or NBC/Comcast who might want to step up to the plate. Given the realities of the economy, all schools need more money.
Here is my prediction and that’s all it is: The tournament goes to 96 team out of pure financial necessity. The 32 team NIT, which the NCAA also controls, will go always and those teams will be folded into the big tournament. CBS retains the rights to the tournament and finds a cable partner to share in the costs and the distribution. Don’t be surprised if it’s Turner Broadcasting. Then the NCAA will have to do a lot of selling to a skeptical public and press and convince them that the event that they love so much will not be watered down with first round games that include a 9 vs. 24 seed.
I spoke to several commissioners of smaller conferences who are convinced that the vast majority of this money is not going to trickle down to them because most of those 32 extra slots in the tournament will go to teams in the BCS conferences.
The NCAA insists this is not a done deal but my conversations this week tell me the train is at the station and getting ready to move out. Everybody just needs to jump on board.
The other big topic here has a chance to completely change college football as we know it. I’ve spoken to a number of athletics directors and commissioners who are convinced that the Big Ten is positioning itself to seriously consider becoming college football first super conference by expanding to as many as 16 teams.
The Big Ten is looking at three plans: Stand pat with 11 teams, add one team (hopefully Notre Dame) or make a blockbuster move and go to 16.
“If they go to 16 and one of them is Notre Dame then we’ve got an entirely new ball game,” a conference commissioner told me confidentially.
There is pretty serious speculation that The Big Ten would look to the Big East in its big master plan. Now I don’t know which teams are involved, but Just for fun, let’s say the Big Ten asks Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Connecticut and Rutgers to join. If they said yes, the Big East would be out of the football business. I think the Catholic schools (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette, Seton Hall, DePaul, Providence) in the league move on and form their own basketball conference.
What would happen to the other football playing schools in the Big East: West Virginia, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida? Does the ACC take them in order to match the Big 16?
What would happened to Notre Dame? Would they be invited to join the Catholic conference for basketball? What about their other sports?
And what does the SEC do if the Big Ten throws down this gauntlet? The conference has its 15-year, $3 billion television contract in place. Does the SEC have to react to the new marketplace that has been created? The SEC and Big Ten have separated themselves financially from the rest of Division I. If the SEC stood pat would it risk watching the Big Ten with the additional dollars that would come in, pull away from the SEC?
Does the SEC get aggressive and pick up the phone call Texas? That’s the one school that would move the financial needle to improve the great deal the SEC already has. And if you take Texas, you have to take Texas A&M because of the politics. Does the SEC take another look at Florida State and Miami and see if those schools would be interested in leaving the ACC for a better financial deal?
I have been saying this for years: The dominoes of expansion will start tumbling when the Big Ten makes its move. If it only adds one team, even if it’s Notre Dame, then relatively little will change. But if commissioner Jim Delany wants to make a splash and go to 16, then absolutely anything is possible. If members of the Big East want to leave, they must remain in the conference for an additional 27 months after they declare. So if the Big Ten wants to take some Big East teams, they must make a decision soon in order for those teams to be in place for the 2012 football season.
Understand that there is a lot of smoke here. None of this could happen. Or all of it could. So stay tuned.
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