BENNER: Let Big Ten grow, but keep NCAA tournament as is

March 13, 2010

Is more better? Some think so.

Then again, you have multi-class high school basketball in Indiana.

I know. Let it go, Bill. Let it go.

But the concept of more being better could be coming to a couple of institutions we know well.

One is the Big Ten Conference.

The other is the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

First things first.

In December, the Big Ten said it was open to the possibility of its first expansion since 1993, when Penn State University became the league’s 11th member and made the conference a misnomer, its catchy logo notwithstanding.

By nature, I’m a traditionalist (see multi-class basketball, above) but didn’t feel strongly for or against the addition of the Nittany Lions, even if it did add one of the Big Ten’s most logistically difficult road trips. A former Indiana University basketball coach once referred to Penn State as a “camping trip,” but, of course, that was before he relocated to Texas Tech University which, by comparison, is a journey to the moon.

But I digress.

In retrospect, Penn State has been a worthy addition, adding a measure of balance of power in football and continuing to be—more, rather than less—a guaranteed win for the league’s basketball powers.

Of course, the Big Ten will also tell you about the importance of Penn State’s “fit” as an academic and research institution but, bottom line, it has been more about the numbers of eyes on television sets in the populous East.

Still, 11 is an odd number, indeed, especially with other of the so-called power conferences expanding to the minimum of 12 necessary to break into divisions and stage lucrative postseason league championship football games, while the Big Tenners pretty much go into hibernation at Thanksgiving, waking only long enough to get their helmets kicked in—well, much of the time, anyway—during the bowl season.

The popular theory is that rest is no compensation for rust.

Anyway, talk of expansion is now reportedly taking place in back rooms from Syracuse to Austin with the door cracked open ever so slightly even in South Bend, where the University of Notre Dame athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, says both absolutely not and maybe, depending on how the dominoes tumble. In the meantime, the Irish continue as a League of Their Own in football while the other sports toil in the Big East.

I guess if I were a Domer, I wouldn’t apologize for not seeking a conference affiliation, even if it would mean less travel for those other “student”-athletes, as if anyone really cares about them when football is the franchise, replete with its own national television contract.

So, looking to the sunrise, that leaves us to consider Rutgers, Syracuse or Pittsburgh, or westward ho to Texas (seriously, not a chance), Iowa State, Nebraska or Missouri.

My choice: Mizzou. The Tigers already have a significant rivalry with Illinois. They’d bring in the St. Louis and Kansas City television markets and give the Big Ten a significant presence in Big 12 territory. They’d also provide the best geographical balance, giving the Big Ten (and rest assured, it will remain being called the Big Ten) six teams each in the Eastern and Central time zones and an easy Eastern Division-Western Division geographical split.

Think about this, too. The addition of a team from the East could place Indiana and Purdue in opposite divisions. That just doesn’t seem right. But here’s the real local benefit: Indy and Lucas Oil Stadium would have to be at the top of a very short list of places capable of hosting a lucrative Big Ten championship football game.

So, expansion. Bring it on.

But not so with the rumored expansion of the men’s basketball tournament. Indy’s own Greg Shaheen, who has risen from local organizing committee volunteer to tournament czar, is leading the exploratory stage of expansion that not coincidentally is timed with network negotiations.

The most prevalent theory going is a growth to 96 teams with the top 32 getting first-round byes and the tournament still fitting in the three-week window.

Whatever the format and number, I’m not sold. College basketball’s regular season and the conference tournaments still have meaning, and expansion would significantly de-value that. Neither would expansion end the debate about who gets in and who is left out. In fact, it would broaden the argument.

The tournament isn’t broke. There’s no reason—financial or otherwise—to try to fix it.

Kind of like single-class Indiana high school basketball.

I know. Get over it.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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