SBJ/20100329/Opinion

How to infuse hope in the Big Dance

How do we create an expanded national NCAA basketball tournament with flair without either diluting the regular season into oblivion or reducing the first round of the tournament to an embarrassing slaughter fest of “24-seeds” against the goliaths of Division I basketball? Simple: start the Big Dance with a Cinderella Dance.

Whether to expand the NCAA basketball tournament from its 65-team format is a question that gains momentum each year. But with the likes of North Carolina, UCLA and Connecticut out of the tournament altogether in 2010, it begs for a solution more than ever.

The answer is at once simple, easy, and a TV bonanza. And it is hiding in plain sight: the NIT. Reserve up to four NCAA slots for the final four of the NIT and suddenly there are more Cinderellas, more up-and-comers, and more teams with momentum, not to mention more ratings, money and fan interest.

Sports as entertainment are all about selling hope. With the NIT suddenly infused with relevance, it will mean much more than just a shot at the penultimate NIT tin medal. Keep 32 teams in the NIT, but now give them all a second chance of making the NCAA tournament. It only takes three layers of games to whittle a 32-team field down to the final four. It could all be done in as little as six days or, if necessary, a day or two more.

This way there will be no artificial weak sisters playing Kansas or Duke, yet 92 or 93 teams will have hope. Forget the NIT championship game; who cares? Not even the winners care. Take the battle-tested last four teams standing, and give them a really meaningful prize: four slots in the NCAA. It would be both interesting and convenient to give all four teams the 16th seed. The top NCAA seeds would all play against proven teams with momentum, setting the stage for much more relevant, if not exciting games. But if “protecting” the No. 1 seeds is an overriding concern, reserve the 12th or 14th slots instead, a little harder logistically, but possibly more appropriate.

Either way, a true Cinderella might stay hot and have a genuine chance in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, some down-on-their luck powerhouses would suddenly have one final shot at relevance: enter UCLA and North Carolina, for example. Wouldn’t the networks and the NCAA like to claw back those big-school viewers — and their wallets — for a few games?

But what about the incumbent problems and logistics, like fatigue? Could four NIT teams play three games in six days? It only takes five days to do three games with two days’ rest between each, so six days would provide a little breathing room. The NIT likes to play its games locally to generate interest, causing more travel for each lower seed but less travel for the higher seeds. If necessary, though, the NIT could rethink its approach by just having four regional venues, with enhanced national television interest adding the sizzle. Consider also: Winning the current NIT already requires five games, and winning the NCAA requires six games. Even if the NIT qualifiers play two or three more contests, few schools, if any, would be fatigued any more than several schools are now.

Call it the NIT Play-In Tournament. With the NIT now controlled by the NCAA anyway, the stage is duly set to enhance the NCAA reach, anoint great meaning and relevance to the NIT, and simultaneously expand the greatest sports commodity that money and ingenuity can buy: hope.

There is a growing likelihood that the NCAA will expand as soon as 2011. Unless it wants to conduct a diminished NIT for teams with losing records, the NIT may disappear altogether as a new stalk of NCAA games takes shape. The conclusion remains: A play-in tournament is a better approach than traditional bottom-up expansion with up to 32 more meaningless games. Suddenly there will be more hope, more fairness, and dozens of additional games worth watching — all good for television, fans, ratings and March revenue. And that adds up to March Magic.

Eldon L. Ham is an adjunct professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law and has worked with or represented numerous agents and athletes.

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