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What A 68 Team NCAA Tournament Field Means For Eagles Fans

The big news from the world of college sports today is not the first round of the NFL Draft - one of the biggest non-event events in all of sports, if you ask me - but rather the topic of NCAA Tournament expansion. By now you've certainly heard the March Madness apocalypse has been (temporarily) averted and the committee has decided to instead expand the tournament by just 3 teams to a field of 68.

Leave it to the NCAA to try and steal some of the lime light from the NFL. Well played, NCAA brass. Well played.

The general consensus is that expansion by 3 instead of by 31 is a good thing. A very good thing. 

Largely, I agree with this viewpoint, but I'm also not about to believe that we have somehow permanently staved off NCAA Tournament expansion to 96 teams. For me, it's a question of when and not if.

But what does NCAA Tournament expansion really mean for Boston College?

First, the good. The bigger news from today's NCAA Tournament announcement is not the number of teams that will be included next season, but rather the TV deal that comes with it. Over the next fourteen years, the NCAA Tournament will be shown on CBS and the Turner family of networks including TBS, TNT and truTV. That means for the first time in the 73 year history of the tournament, every NCAA Tournament game will be shown live on television. This is very good news for BC.

When the Eagles made the tournament, depending on your local broadcast you might not have been able to watch the game live on CBS and were forced to either go to a bar / game watch, crowd around your computer screen or miss the game entirely. Say goodbye to the live cutaway that tended to interrupt BC's NCAA Tournament game. A huge plus.

Now, the bad news. Now that every tournament game will be on TV (assuming you get truTV), this spells certain death to the CBS March Madness on Demand video player as we know it. This means that on the Thursday and Friday of the tournament, you have to go back to doing actual work. This is a very bad thing, especially if BC's first round tournament games are during the day. Save up your sick days accordingly. 

Turner is reportedly going to start building out their own March Madness on Demand player, but it remains to be seen if it will be as good as the CBS version. 

Next, in terms of the competitive format of the tournament, it doesn't seem that this will really affect the Eagles in the short- to medium- term. While the NCAA hasn't formally figured out how to add three teams to the tournament, there is generally 1 of 2 schools of thought on the matter:

  1. Instead of having one meaningless 16a vs. 16b play-in game, you now have four such meaningless games. Winners of the opening round games would face the 1 seed in each region.
  2. The other, definitely more radical option, is to have four play-in games with the last 4 at-large teams on the bubble. An intriguing idea, but ultimately I don't see it happening.

Given that I don't see BC earning either a #1 seed or a #16 seed anytime soon, the changes to the competitive format seem to have little impact on future NCAA Tournaments for the Eagles.

Finally, in terms of the new coaching staff, expansion to 68 teams is a good thing - nay, a great thing - for Steve Donahue and the Eagles. Expectations will certainly be low heading into next season (currently having only 8 scholarship players on the roster will do that to a fan base), but the fear was that with 96 teams, the pressure to win and win now could have gotten the better of Superfans and boosters, who would have demanded results sooner rather than later. 

Now, no one is going to realistically expect BC to make the NCAA Tournament field next year. However, if the tournament was going to 96 teams, even with a depleted roster, it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility to think that BC could contend for 1 of 96 tournament spots. Especially with 6 seniors returning and 4 of 5 starters on a team that, while disappointing, did manage to win 15 games.

With a 68 team tournament, Donahue is playing with house money next year. The pressure on Donahue to rebuild BC basketball back into a winner will be less, and the new coaching staff probably will have a longer time horizon to work with before they need to get BC regularly back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. 

So overall, I think the move to a 68 NCAA Tournament field is a net positive for the Eagles basketball program. More TV exposure, no real impact to the competitive format for BC, and less pressure on Donahue to win now.  

However, this doesn't mean that I think we'll never see a mega-96 team NCAA Tournament field in the future. We will. Only a matter of time.