Men’s NCAA Tournament expansion likely would not go beyond 76 teams: Source

With less than two weeks to go before Selection Sunday and the release of the men’s NCAA Tournament bracket, college basketball insiders are prepping for an expanded field in the very near future. Exactly what that looks like needs to be carved out in various committee meetings, but there is less likelihood that the tournament will swell much beyond the current 68 teams.

“We’re not talking about 96,’’ said a college administrator who was briefed on the conversations, but who has not been authorized to speak publicly. “There is little to no appetite for 96 teams, or really even 80.’’

While last-minute pivots are never out of the question — especially when some of the people included in the conversations are already working on expanding the College Football Playoff bracket before it’s even played — a 72- or 76-team field seems the most likely outcome.

It no doubt will still be a bitter pill to swallow for traditionalists, but it may be the only realistic way to keep the tournament alive. Project Division I, NCAA president Charlie Baker’s new charge to reconsider the very framework of college athletics, includes several radical proposals, including the creation of a new FBS subdivision. College basketball administrators fear that, if the tourney is left untouched, it will inspire power conference schools to at least consider their own postseason. Fox already is creating a counter to the NIT.

“The NCAA has to be proactive,” the source said. “Expansion — modest expansion — may be the only way to keep the tournament we all know and love alive.”

A field of 72 or 76 is not merely a compromise, but a practical solution. A 96-team field would make it virtually impossible to avoid reconstructing the entire postseason calendar, especially now as 18-team conferences contend with managing their own league tournaments. There are also financial implications to consider — from the nitty gritty of adding more charter flights for teams and paying our more per diem to the broader scale of offsetting the additional costs with the potential added revenue stream.

But even adding four or eight more teams is not as simple as drawing in a few more lines. Just where those teams will be inserted has to be considered. Does the First Four become the First Eight? And if so, what seeds fall into that category? There’s the real sticking point: who gets the extra bids?

“You can’t keep UCLA out just because they’re in the Big Ten,” the source said, “but they have to be deserving, too.”

The other big question, not surprisingly, is money. Namely, how expansion impacts revenue distribution via NCAA Tournament units. Adding more teams means more schools get a cut of the CBS/Turner TV money. If, however, more money isn’t added to the pot, more teams divided by the same dollars equals less money per school.

Some, fearing an Armageddon scenario, worry that will lead power-conference commissioners to push for a restructuring of the automatic bid process, which is, of course, the very lifeblood of the everyman tournament.

Such a dramatic change would, at least, require a full membership vote.

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(Photo: Jamie Schwaberow /NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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