Savor your bracket this bright March morning, because it might never be like this again.
I’m not just talking about our tournament bracket picks, pure and pristine before the grisly cross-outs and upset debacles began Thursday.
I’m talking about the shape and feel of the NCAA Tournament — the 65 teams, the symmetry and rhythm of three weekends, six rounds, and no byes.
I’m talking about the possibility that, as soon as next year, the tournament could be very different — and much more bloated — than it has been for 26 years.
In fact, if you trust the NCAA to make the clunky money grab whenever possible, you can almost guarantee that these are the final days of the tournament as we know it.
The word is that the NCAA is looking to expand the field to 96 teams as early as next year, presuming ESPN or Turner Sports ante up and the NCAA opts out of its long-term deal with CBS by July 31.
“I don’t like it,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of the 96-team potential. “I’m not going to tell you I’m going to get out of coaching because of it. But I’m more of a traditionalist.”
“Now, there’s a mystique, there’s something special about being in the tournament. If they expanded, that mystique would go away.”
Next year, your brackets could look very different, with much smaller print.
Next year, the whole thing probably will get another layer of fat. We could have the Final Four, Elite Eight, Sweet 16, Thankful 32 and, err, Surviving 64.
Ready for a Louisville-Quinnipiac first-round matchup, for the right to play Cal? That is almost certainly what the first round would be like if the 96-team field was in place this year — basically the NIT dressed up in Big Dance makeup.
If this happens, there will be an instant result: More games mean more money for the NCAA. Can we make sure to funnel some of that money to other needy groups, like Big Oil and maybe Wall Street bankers?
Practical result: Because the NCAA is determined to stick to the three-week window, the added round would be squeezed into the same time period, probably meaning games on Tuesday and Wednesday after the first weekend.
More practical result: It’s likely that the top 32 teams would get first-round byes, with the other 64 teams playing in to the second round.
Understood result: The dilution of the NCAA Tournament after the postseason tournaments diluted it, after the expansion to 64 teams diluted it and after the glut of televised games diluted everything.
Anybody hear of diminishing returns? The NCAA hasn’t.
More understood result: The cheapening of tournament berths across the board, as the NCAA gets richer. Weird how that works.
For instance, this year Florida, Utah State and Virginia Tech were “bubble” teams — Florida and Utah State got in, Virginia Tech did not, and it’s hard to get too excited about any of that.
Oh, well. The expansion is probably happening next year. Nothing we say is likely to change the NCAA’s greed.
So savor this tournament. Enjoy what you see, while it lasts, and prepare yourself for next year’s Bloated Bracket Syndrome.