I never thought I'd say this, and in fact I've suggested the opposite in the past, but give me 96 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Essentially, there are two distinct consumer values of the NCAA tournament. The first is the last-second, nail-biting chaos that can ensue during the first four days of the tournament. The second is the actual quest for the championship.
Rarely do the two reasons converge in one single contest or team.
George Masons are fun for two or three games, but neither CBS nor the average seasoned fan find any satisfaction when a "little guy" cracks the Elite Eight.
Given the shift in consumer satisfaction from the first weekend to the second—from wanting chaos and upsets, to wanting to see the best basketball teams win—a move to 96 teams actually makes a lot of sense.
The worst games of the first round are inevitably the 1-16 matchups, followed closely by those involving two and three seeds. In fact, of the top 16 seeds this year, only one (Wake Forest) crapped itself and lost in the first round.
More often, the lower-seeded teams collapse, as American and East Tennessee State did this year.
Since we know the four-games-at-a-time format not only works, but works exceedingly well, a 96-team tournament would be ideal, with six teams per "pod" instead of four.
Not only would the extra round add two more days of revenue, but the overall caliber of basketball, and upset potential, would actually increase. Pundits often speak of diluted talent, but this is absurd.
With 330+ Division I teams, and a healthy amount of parity, the tangible difference between a current 12 seed (Wisconsin, for example) and a hypothetical 18 seed (say, Miami) is negligible. It would be much less than the difference between a six seed and a 12 seed.
The worst first-round pairings would be the nine seed playing the 24 seed, but Tennessee-Chattanooga, Butler-Morehead, and Siena-Radford have far more promise to be interesting than the ritualistic slaughter of the 16 seed, not to mention the audacious stupidity of the "play-in" game.
Here is a hastily-composed list of possible pairings for this year's hypothetical first round in a 96-team model:
9. Tennessee vs. 24. Chattanooga
9. Siena vs. 24. Radford
9. Butler vs. 24. Morehead St.
9. Texas A&M vs. 24. Alabama St.
10. Minnesota vs. 23. East Tennessee St.
10. USC vs. 23. CS-Northridge
10. Michigan vs. 23. Morgan St.
10. Maryland vs. 23. Robert Morris
11. VCU vs. 22. Binghampton
11. Dayton vs. 22. Cornell
11. Temple vs. 22. Akron
11. Utah St. vs. 22. North Dakota St.
12. Wisconsin vs. 21. Portland St.
12. Arizona vs. 21. American
12. Western Kentucky vs. 21. Stephen F. Austin
12. Northern Iowa vs. 21. Houston
13. Mississippi St. vs. 20. Northwestern
13. Creighton vs. 20. Cleveland St.
13. St. Mary's vs. 20. Washington St.
13. Penn State vs. 20. Nevada
14. Auburn vs. 19. Wisconsin-Green Bay
14. Florida vs. 19. Nebraska
14. San Diego St. vs. 19. Duquesne
14. New Mexico vs. 19. Kansas St.
15. South Carolina vs. 18. Miami (FL)
15. Davidson vs. 18. Kentucky
15. Georgetown vs. 18. Rhode Island
15. UNLV vs. 18. Notre Dame
16. Illinois State vs. 17. Virginia Tech
16. Niagara vs. 17. Baylor
16. Tulsa vs. 17. George Mason
16. UAB vs. 17. Providence
That list should speak for itself to the college hoops fan. There's more than enough talent and intrigue to sustain two days of basketball here.
What would be wrong with giving Eric Maynor or Stephon Curry additional opportunities on the national stage?
How would adding Kentucky, Georgetown, Nebraska, Florida, and Auburn hurt ratings?
How would showcasing the sport two more days, while everyone checks their brackets, be bad for the game?
Given that there are now four postseason college tournaments, I see no reason not to fold another round into the Big Dance by finding room for the Niagaras and Illinois States.
This could make the 1-16 games reasonably competitive, and put another barrier between the sub-eight seeds and the Final Four.
The litmus test for a coach would no longer be making the tournament, but instead snagging that first-round bye. Schools like East Tennessee State may run out of gas against Pitt, but they would likely be able to seal the deal against Minnesota, USC, or Arizona.
From every angle this works. Schools, players, fans, and, of course, the almighty eye at CBS. Most importantly, it would be democratic in the loosest sense of the word.
After all, what better way to celebrate an event that causes basketball-dumb co-workers to cast their ballots against the experts, and often prevail by including a few more worthy teams?
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