Sources: NCAA presents new basketball tournament models that would expand field by 4 or 8 teams

NAPLES, Fla. — College basketball moved one step closer this week to an expanded NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

NCAA officials on Wednesday presented to Division I conference commissioners at least two models of an expanded field, one with an additional four teams and another with an additional eight teams, commissioners told Yahoo Sports. Officials declined to speak publicly about the models.

The models would expand the 68-team field to 72 or 76 teams, with additional at-large selections as well as at least one additional First Four site. Any expansion would begin, at earliest, in the 2025-26 season. If the men’s event expands, the women’s tournament is likely to undergo a similar expansion.

Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president for the men’s basketball championship, unveiled the models in a presentation Wednesday at the commissioners’ annual summer meeting. In the culmination of months of work, Gavitt outlined possibilities for what commissioners believe to be an inevitable expansion of the men’s event — a movement mostly championed by the power conferences, something Yahoo Sports reported in February.

As a way to avoid eliminating any of the 28 small-conference automatic qualifiers — a time-honored and popular concept with fans — NCAA and conference leaders are targeting the addition of at-large selections as has been done in the past. The last expansion, in 2011, added four at-large teams and created the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, where two pairings of 16 seeds and two pairings of at-large selections meet in play-in games.

Any new expansion to the field is expected to result in at least one additional First Four site, perhaps in a Western time zone. But expanding the tournament — by even just four teams — is a complex issue.

Officials are planning to retain the current 64-team bracket. With play-in game winners needing a spot in that structure, space has to be made. More 10-12 seeds, originally in the 64-team bracket, could find themselves having to win play-in games on that Tuesday or Wednesday to advance to the first round on Thursday or Friday.

More tough decisions lie ahead as well. Officials need to determine if more small-conference automatic qualifiers will be relegated to play-in games — a sensitive subject for some commissioners of lower-resourced leagues.

There’s something else, too: Will the additional games generate more revenue? It remains an unanswered question. CBS and Turner are not required to increase the amount in which they pay, according to those with knowledge of the contract.

Gavitt’s modeling of a possible expanded field is one step in an approval process that could take many more months as commissioners explore altering what’s widely known as the most popular event in college athletics — and in American sports. Various groups are scheduled to examine the expansion modeling over this summer and fall, including meetings of the NCAA basketball oversight committee next week and a meeting of the NCAA basketball selection committee set for next month.

The basketball tournament is the NCAA’s largest and most vital revenue stream, keeping afloat the organization itself as well as helping subsidize hundreds of small-college athletic departments. As part of a tournament television deal with CBS and Turner running through 2032, the NCAA distributes annually around $700 million to its schools, both in base amounts and in units earned through advancing in the event.

While much of that revenue goes to the power conferences, leaders of the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big 12 have publicly expressed a desire to expand the field of 36 at-large selections to open a pathway for more of their schools. This spring, commissioners held multiple meetings with NCAA president Charlie Baker about tournament expansion, strongly encouraging the NCAA to find a way to grow the field.

“I want to see the best teams competing for a national championship, no different than [the Big Ten and SEC] want to see in football,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark told Yahoo Sports in February. “I’m not sure that is currently happening.”

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips believes that a “holistic review” of the tournament is necessary, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has suggested an expansion of the field multiple times over the past two years.

Expansion is nothing new for the event. In 1975, the tournament expanded to include 32 teams to allow a second team to represent a conference in addition to its champion. In 1979, it grew to 40 teams and then to 48 in 1980. In 1985, the tournament moved to 64 teams, and in 2001, the tournament expanded by a single team to create a play-in game before the 2011 expansion to 68.

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