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NCAA messing with perfection

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By Tim Dahlberg

An AP Column

They've floated the trial balloons and watched as they were punctured one by one. The games of the last few days alone should convince any rational sports fan that expanding the NCAA basketball tournament is the kind of madness no one needs in March.

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But they won't give up easy, because there's something bigger at stake here. Something that makes the idea of a 96-team tournament irresistible.

Something that makes the hypocrites who run the NCAA stay awake at night salivating at the thought of it all.

A chance for more young student-athletes to live their dreams? Hardly. More opportunities for a Cinderella team to win it all? Laughable.

Just money, and lots of it.

That the current incarnation of the tournament isn't broken doesn't matter. Neither does the fact that millions of Americans would rather not be burdened with filling out a bracket with 32 more teams.

The NCAA has a chance to grab some more money and run. The only shock would be if the people running the bastion of amateur athletics can resist their greedy urges.

If you've been too busy watching double-digit seeds win this week to pay much attention to the future of a tournament that each March slows productivity in offices across the country, listen up now. Because by this time next year March Madness could be a week longer and include 32 teams that will do little but fill a few hundred more hours of television time.

Think the opening days of the tournament are a blur of Oakland, Sam Houston and other schools you've never heard about? Wait until they add 50 percent more teams.

As for filling out a bracket, well, you'd be better off putting your 25 bucks on the roulette wheel in Las Vegas.

Get ready, though, because in Vegas they would give you good odds it will happen. Almost has to, because that's about the only way the money can get bigger and the NCAA chases television money like it is the NFL.

That doesn't make it any more palatable for those who think there's no need to mess with perfection.

"I don't think it's broken. It is what it is. It's a staple. It's branded," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said the other day. "And you have to earn the right to be there. That's what makes it special. The larger they grow the field, the more it diminishes the true value of making it."

That's coming from a coach you might think would favor expansion. If the Aggies hadn't pulled an upset to win the WAC tournament, they would have had no chance to almost beat Michigan State in the opening round.

Surprisingly, Menzies isn't alone among his fellow coaches. The Associated Press surveyed 23 of them on the eve of the tournament and found them basically split on the subject despite the general feeling that there is more job security for a coach who makes it into the postseason.

Those in favor trot out the usual arguments for expansion -- because there are more Division I teams than ever (347 at last count) there should be more teams in the playoffs. They point out that the field hasn't really been expanded -- save for one odd opening-round game -- since 1985 and that more than one out of every five teams should get the chance to play.

But the tournament already is sprinkled with weak teams. And it's not like any additional team would have a chance to win the national championship, because the lowest seed to do so in the last 21 years was No. 4 Arizona in 1997.

Expanding to 96 teams also would take a lot of the fun out of selection Sunday and the suspense of wondering whether your school will make the field. With a tournament that big, all it might take is a winning record.

The NCAA has until July 31 to opt out of the last three years of a contract with CBS that will pay it about $700 million a year. It might not get much more for those three years in a new contract, but adding, say, ESPN to televise some of the games would give it another network to extract cash from, along with more games to sell.

It's a great idea if you're only worried about money. But this isn't the NFL, and the NCAA doesn't need to chase every last dollar simply because the dollars are there.

There are no owners who need to get rich, no shareholders to make happy.

No need to mess with perfection.

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