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Hoops Scoops Notebook: NCAA ponders 96-team bracket

Does anyone believe that a team capable of winning the NCAA basketball title will be left out of the 65-team field when it is announced on Selection Sunday? The odds of that happening are slim and none. As the deepest conference in the nation, the Big East is likely to at least match last season's seven selections.

For all the annual debate about "bubble teams" that get left out, has there ever been one that showed by its subsequent play in the NIT that it could have won the NCAA title since the field first was expanded to 64 teams? The answer is no, but now the NCAA is considering expanding the tournament to 96 teams. The rationale is that, with 347 schools playing Division I basketball, too many deserving teams are being left out of the mix.

Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzales was among several on today's Big East conference call who weighed in on the subject, and his opinion was especially interesting because he has changed his mind. "I, for a long time, felt, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it,'" Gonzales said. "But recently, I read (Syracuse coach Jim) Boeheim's comments when he made the comparison to the NBA and how more than half the teams get into the playoffs, and a lot of things he said made sense.

"I've recently started thinking expansion might be good for college basketball, especially after being in a league like this where everyone beats everybody up every year. There's teams where your record is not great, but if you're middle of the pack in this league, you might deserve to be in the NCAA."

Going into a tough road game Saturday at Pitt, the Pirates are 12-8 overall but only 3-6 in Big East play, yet with high-scoring Jeremy Hazell in the lineup, they are a tough out for anybody. Whether a team with a losing record in a major conference should qualify ahead of a top-tier team from a lesser conference is a question that won't be answered entirely by expansion.

Could Connecticut (13-9) , which has been ranked in the Top 10 this season but is now 3-6 in the Big East, beat a quality mid-major such as coach Jim Calhoun's old school Northeastern (15-8, 10-2 Colonial Athletic Association)? Probably so. On the other hand, UConn gets plenty of opportunities to measure itself against the best and prove its merit. Maybe Northeastern deserves a shot at a good team on a neutral court after faring well in CAA play.

Jay Wright, coach of No. 2 Villanova, is all for expansion. "I love it," said Wright, who knows how tough it was to gain recognition when he had a quality program at Hofstra. "I think its time has come as we add Division I teams. In college football, close to 50 percent of the [Division I] teams go to bowl games."

Do we really need the basketball version of the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the Papa John's Bowl? No, but you can't blame coaches whose ultimate job security depends on getting into the NCAA tournament for trying to give themselves the best possible chance to achieve that goal. If television has the appetite for more NCAA games, which it undeniably does, it will happen.

Stony Brook hits the mock brackets

Despite Stony Brook's current first-place standing in the America East, coach Steve Pikiell knows his team has a long ways to go to secure the school's first NCAA tournament bid. Never mind winning the regular-season title. It's the conference tournament in Albany that guarantees an automatic NCAA bid. The regular-season winner only is assured of an NIT bid.

Nonetheless, it should be a point of pride for Pickell that his Seawolves (16-7, 8-2) recently were included for the first time as a 16th seed in the mock brackets published by ESPN (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/bracketology) and by The Sporting News (http://today.sportingnews.com/sportingnewstoday/20100202/?pg=20&pm=1&u1=friend).

Let's hope that, if the NCAA does expand to 96 teams, all regular-season conference champions automatically receive a bid. That would restore the value of the regular season, and the conference tournaments then would offer one last chance for teams to qualify by winning or to prove themselves worthy by performing well.

The passing of St. John's great Dick McGuire

Much has been written today in praise of Dick McGuire, who was an All-American at St. John's and an NBA All-Star with the Knicks, who raised his number to the rafters of Madison Square Garden. He later served the franchise as coach and then as a long-time scout in the personnel department.

I had the chance to meet him and talk to him briefly on a couple of occasions while covering the NBA and the Knicks for Newsday, and like everyone else, it was impossible not to be impressed by what a gracious and humble a man he was. But what I can add is the knowledge that the Knicks' fortunes might have been much different in the past decade had they listened to McGuire prior to the 1999 NBA draft.

That was the year Ed Tapscott took over for deposed general manager Ernie Grunfeld and chose 7-foot Frenchman Frederic Weis over St. John's star Ron Artest much to the chagrin of coach Jeff Van Gundy. The thinking was that they needed to replace center Patrick Ewing, who had been traded to Seattle, and there were question marks about how Artest would handle playing at home in New York. Needless to say, Van Gundy loved Artest's competitiveness and hated the lack of that quality in Weis, not to mention his lack of NBA ability.

McGuire was not in favor of taking Weis, who never played a second in the NBA and didn't even make it to training camp after struggling in a summer minicamp. How much more competitive would the Knicks have been with Artest, and how might he have thrived under Van Gundy? Unfortunately, we'll never know because McGuire was ignored.

Recommended reading on ESPN.com

ESPN college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb has written a moving memoir about the members of the Oklahoma State basketball family that perished when one of three planes in the traveling party crashed in 2001. You don't have to know or remember any of the victims to appreciate Gottlieb's account of their place in his life and in the OSU family because he introduces you to them in a small, meaningful way.

As it happens, I didn't realize until reading Gottlieb's remarkable piece (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/columns/story?columnist=gottlieb_doug&id=4879974) that one of the victims was the son of an acquaintance I made long ago. As a student at Missouri, I met Bill Hancock, who later ran the NCAA basketball tournament for years until accepting the position of executive director of the BCS Championship football game last fall. His son, Will Hancock, was Oklahoma State's sports information director and was lost in the crash. Bill Hancock wrote a book titled "Riding with the Blue Moth" about his experience coping with the tragedy.

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