If the NCAA expands its men's basketball tournament from 65 to 96 teams, as it seems poised to do, it very well could mean the end of Madison Square Garden's venerable National Invitation Tournament. Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice-president of basketball and business strategies confirmed that scenario this afternoon in a press conference at the Final Four.
As Shaheen explained, the NIT is part of the NCAA structure in the sense they work together to formulate the 32-team field, but the actuall tournament is administered by a separate entity. If the NCAA essentially absorbed the 32-team NIT into its field, Shaheen said, "The NIT would have to make the decision of what it does going forward.
"I think the model as we contemplate it in terms of what has been described from the NCAA championship perspective contemplates such a scenario. At the same time, there's nothing that's been determined in that regard."
Shaheen said the most likely 96-team model would start and end the tournament within the same time frame. Regular-season conference champions that don't otherwise qualify for the NCAA as conference tournament champions would be among the additional 32 teams. Currently, they receive an automatic NIT bid, as Stony Brook did this season.
The NCAA contracts with CBS and ESPN run through 2013, but they have a window to opt out this year and negotiate a new deal. Expansion would produce more revenue. Under the new model, the top 32 teams (top 8 seeds in 24-team brackets) would receive first-round byes. They would begin play on the Saturday or Sunday of the first weekend's games, and an extra round of games would be slotted in the following week on Tuesday or Wednesday. The Regionals then would continue as usual with the same Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday format.
Increasing the size of the field isn't likely to add a team capable of winning the title, Shaheen acknowledged, but he added, "That opportunity exists." Rather than watering down the field, Shaheen argued there would be more teams in the tournament capable of producing early-round upsets, "including teams that are below the traditional threshhold of where a team would make it into the tournament as an at-large member."
Perfect example: Dayton, which didn't make the NCAA field out of the Atlantic-10 but is poised to battle ACC power North Carolina for the NIT title tonight at the Garden -- maybe the final NIT.