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Holloway: Perfection is best left unaltered
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If you haven’t heard yet, the NCAA basketball tournament could be expanding to 96 teams in the near future.

Sportsbybrooks.com, citing anonymous NCAA and ESPN sources, reported early this week that the bloating of one of the best sporting events in the country is already “a done deal.”

In related news, the Vatican has commissioned a team of abstract modern artists to re-think the Sistine Chapel.

The last part was a joke. Unfortunately, the first part was not.

In response to the “done deal” report, NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen told FoxSports.com that no decision was final, but he confirmed that the organization is “talking with parties who have interest.”

Read: Television networks.

The Sports Business Journal reported this week that ESPN, FOX and CBS may bid on the expanded tournament.

“It’s part of our due diligence,” Shaheen told the Web site. “We have to look at what our membership wants.

“We have to assess everything,” he added. “Have we talked to people in our membership about expanding? Absolutely.”

If by membership he’s referring to coaches, expansion is exactly what they want. If he’s talking about university presidents and athletic directors, the feedback is mixed.

For coaches, this is a matter of self-preservation, at least the way they see it. Reaching the tournament equals a successful season for most programs, and if the field is expanded to 96 teams, their chances for success increase by 50 percent.

But this is a short-sighted approach. Inclusion in March’s Madness is considered an achievement because in a 65-team field, there’s an inherent degree of difficulty in being selected.

Remove that, and simply qualifying for the tournament becomes the equivalent of playing in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, which as Bobby Bowden will attest, does not guarantee the perception of success or the reality of job security.

One delegation the NCAA won’t be considering in this exploration is the fan base, from which the backlash has been overwhelmingly negative.

But what are the fans going to do, not watch the tournament? No, of course we’ll still watch. At first, anyway.

Three weekends per year, CBS has reaped the rating benefits of college basketball’s version of must-see TV. The tournament has become more than basketball games, it’s a cultural phenomenon, replete with full-day coverage and ubiquitous office pools.

As anecdotal evidence of its popularity saturation, I present my wife. She probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a travelling violation and a technical foul, but every year she fills out her bracket. So do my sister, mom and dad, who prior to March probably combine to watch three college basketball games all year.

Those might be the extreme cases, but how many others fall into the casual fan category; those who hardly pay attention during the regular season, but will spend the better part of an early spring weekend watching the Davids from the Missouri Valley Conference try to slay a Big East Goliath?

In a recent Ipsos poll, 59 percent of college basketball fans described themselves this way.

Will they still tune in after the tournament has been grossly watered-down? Maybe for a while. But over time, I’d guess the tournament will lose its luster for the casual viewer.

Another group of interested parties whose wants and needs won’t be paid any more than lip service are the student-athletes involved. Though, make no mistake, if and when expansion comes to pass, the NCAA will try to convince us it’s best for the children.

Maryland men’s coach Gary Williams offered up this lame argument for expansion to the Baltimore Sun:

“If you can say you played in the NCAA tournament, that’s a pretty good cap to your career. It’s best for the players.”

Following that logic, why don’t we just include all 347 Division-I teams and drop the regular season in favor of one big double-elimination tournament.

And give everybody a trophy. And quit keeping score.

That way nobody gets their feelings hurt and everybody wins.

Keep in mind, this is the same group that won’t so much as discuss a playoff system for football because another game or two would be detrimental to the athletes’ education (for four to eight teams, mind you, when most schools are out for semester break).

In reality, expansion represents little more than an NCAA money grab.

If the networks are willing to buy it, they’re willing to sell it, at the expense of the players, fans and maybe their own product’s long-term profitability.

So if you really want to protest, don’t go to an NCAA board member. Unless it’s the money that’s talking, they’re not listening. Take your complaints to the source: ESPN, FOX and CBS.

Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at bholloway@gainesvilletimes.com.

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