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NCAA "autonomy" proposal for major conferences to be tailored to preserve hoops tourney revenue

The NCAA is prepared to grant some autonomy to the five richest conferences, but not if that autonomy will diminish perceived integrity of the valuable NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

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Ronald Martinez

Would the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament be as exciting if only schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC were able to participate? That is the potential that could happen if those conferences were to walk away from the NCAA Division I. While fans would surely still tune in to see which power-conference school would be crowned Champion, the whole thing might lose some of the luster and excitement of that first weekend.

Watching an FGCU announce their existence to the nation by surprising everyone with back-to-back upsets; the Cornell Big Red marching to the second weekend; or George Mason dancing their way to the Final Four -- these are the kinds of Cinderella moments that attract fans and bystanders alike to the absolute wall of coverage that surrounds the current NCAA tournament.

The current format, with over 350 contenders winnowed down to 68 by March, is a popular one as its 14-year and $11 billion television deal might suggest. Rocking the boat now seems risky.

However, the five richest conferences want more autonomy to offer more support to student athletes and stretch or alter the limitations imposed by Division I on their programs. Not, however, to offer more scholarships than the rest of the NCAA, however. The NCAA released a proposal for revised governance structures last week, and these issues were a major point of contention.

"[D]ue to competitive concerns, we believe that team scholarship limits should remain permanently in the shared governance category," the Big East wrote. The Ivy League, Mountain West, and MVC all echoed the same concern about limiting autonomy's ability to give the richer schools an ability to stockpile a bench that would rival the richest EPL teams -- to the detriment of smaller schools.

Upon release of the proposal, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney assured USA Today that he didn't think autonomy was heading in that direction... unless a court ordered it, or unless they voluntarily made freshmen ineligible.

Delaney's comments about freshman ineligibility may allow the power conferences a few extra slots on their rosters. In order to field 13 active men's basketball players, for example, a school would need additional scholarships available to cover their inactive freshmen. That would give those schools a numbers-advantage, but the simple act of making freshmen ineligible would also potentially disadvantage those schools -- the one-and-done generation wants to play-now, especially if they have the talent to do so, rather than sit on the sidelines.

Thirteen scholarship players is more than most schools are able to use regularly anyway. The 13th man on an NCAA basketball bench can't expect to play even 10 minutes per game, so the 14th or 15th under any proposed autonomy move might as well not bother getting changed on gameday. Only greed, not need, would be behind a move to expand scholarship limits as part of conference autonomy.