Time for Expansion: The NCAA Should Add a Round and Expand to 96 Teams
When the NCAA basketball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there were far fewer Division 1 teams and far less parity of talent. There are now 341 Division I teams, and 41 have joined in the last 15 years.
With the immediate success of some of these programs, like North Dakota State displayed this week, you can bet that more institutions will be looking to make the leap.
As long as less than a third of eligible teams make the tournament, it isn’t truly watered down. This is significantly fewer than the NFL, NBA, or NHL postseasons reward.
A better system would be a 96-team field, where the top 32 are given a first round bye. While this obviously rewards an additional 32 teams who would currently see the NIT or a long break, it also makes a harder road for the middle 32 who now have to win an extra game to achieve a Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or Final Four.
This would not cheapen the conference tournaments (which probably are given too much weight by committee anyway), because teams are still playing for seeding. In fact, the difference between an eight seed and a nine seed would mean an extra round.
Currently, the teams that are awarded these seeds are usually comfortably in before the conference tournaments ever tip off.
Logistically, it would add 32 games to eight venues. Assuming a day off is still needed between games, the first weekend could start on Wednesday instead of Thursday, and end on Monday instead of Sunday.
Half the opening sites would host Wednesday/Friday/Sunday games, and the other half would host Thursday/Saturday/Monday games.
There would be eight Monday games, which could make television coverage a bit tricky, but I’m sure CBS/ESPN would take that issue in trade for two extra days and 32 extra games.
Another option for this expansion would include an automatic bid for each regular season conference champion as well as the tournament champion.
This probably means that 7-10 of the 32 extra bids go to teams that deserve it more than the current automatic bid, and a couple dozen go to teams who are missing at-large bids now.
The George Mason example is often used to show that quality teams come from low seeds. That season, Hofstra beat the Patriots twice and finished just one game back in the Colonial Athletic Association in the conference. Many thought that Hofstra deserved the at-large bid that went to George Mason.
In this setup, both would have made the tournament, but either would have had to win five games instead of four to reach the Final Four.
This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, even as more and more coaches seem to get on the bandwagon. However, if the conferences, networks, and host cities can find that there is more money to be made, the tournament will expand faster than a well executed two-on-one fast break.
Until then, we will have to be content watching only 65 deserving teams in the best three weeks on the calendar.
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