Another NIT has come and gone, and most people have barely noticed. Of course, another sportswriter is calling for its demise.
Many defenders will point to the exciting championship game between Massachusetts and Ohio State and argue that the NIT is a legitimate tournament with quality teams. Paradoxically, this is exactly why the NIT should be eliminated. Currently, the NCAA tournament has 65 teams, of whom roughly 20 are only there because they won their conference tournament.
The last at-large teams selected generally are seeded No. 11 or No. 12, meaning the NCAAs are not the best 65 teams, but the best 45 or so teams, with some minor conference champions thrown in. Meanwhile, legitimately entertaining teams like Massachusetts, Ohio State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Dayton, and Illinois State are relegated to the B-tournament.
Let’s eliminate the NIT tournament, and expand the NCAAs. Personally, I love the minor conferences teams and their one shot at glory, playing against the big boys, and I hate that the minor conference regular season champs get relegated to the NIT if they don’t win their conference postseason tournament.
So here’s what we do:
Let’s invite 100 teams to the NCAA tournament. If a 65-team tournament has accumulated such cachet, a 100-team tournament would raise the bar two levels. All of the 31 conference regular season champs get an automatic bid to the NCAAs (instead of the NIT, which they currently do), as well as the 30 tournament champs (unless the Ivies change their ways).
Most years, only about a dozen regular season champs wind up in the NIT, and while that number may rise because they won’t have the incentive to win their postseason conference tourney, it still will only be about an additional 15 teams in the NCAAs. The remainder of the bids will be at-large. Currently, 97 teams go to either the NCAAs or the NIT, so we would essentially combine those tournaments, and add an additional 3 at-large teams. Now we will really have the best 65 teams in the same tournament, with some minor conference automatic bids thrown in.
Next, we break them into four regions, as normal, but we seed them No. 1 through No. 25. Instead of the ridiculous “play-in game” on Tuesday, we have Round 1. Round 1 would be Tuesday/Wednesday, and then the Round-Formerly-Known-as-Round 1 would be, as normal, on Thursday/Friday. Round 1 would feature No. 25 playing No. 8, No. 24 playing No. 9, and so on, down to No. 17 playing No. 16.
Meanwhile, the teams seeded No. 1 through No. 7 get byes. (You can see a sample bracket at http://www.crowsdarts.com/brackets/playoff-chart.html)
Once the 36 games of Round 1 are done, they join the 28 teams that got byes for our familiar 64-team format. This tournament favors the higher seeds a bit by giving them a bye. It also makes the No. 1/No. 16 match up much more intriguing, because instead of UCLA whipping up on Nobody State, they actually have to play a legitimate team, someone like a Cal or VCU or Southern Illinois this year. The Mississippi Valley States of the world wind up playing the Indianas and BYUs of the world, and might actually have a shot of not getting embarrassed.
To summarize, we are basically combining the NIT into the NCAAs, with a few more at-large teams. We eliminate the JV tournament; we eliminate the play-in game; we eliminate (or reduce the chance of) first-round blowouts; we have more competitive games earlier in the tournament; we give the smaller programs legitimate chances to win their opening game; we create a tournament with a broader scope and more universal appeal.