In the past few weeks, several rumors have circulated about possible expansion of the NCAA tournament to as many as 96 teams. The vast majority of fans and members of the media have come out strongly against this idea, claiming that the 64/65 team bracket is the closest thing in organized sport to a perfect playoff system.
Despite nearly universal acceptance of the current tournament, there are still several small problems and complaints that have led the NCAA to investigate whether or not to expand.
The most obvious is that teams who repeatedly find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble argue that Division I has grown considerably since the current 64/65 bracket was introduced in 1985, and the tournament should grow accordingly.
Mid-major conferences argue that they don’t have the same access to the tournament that they once had because of major conference growth over the past 20 years. They would gladly accept some major conference bottom-feeders making the tournament in order to get more teams in as well.
Low-major conferences feel that the current play-in game defeats the purpose of the auto bid. Teams that lose the play-in game are denied their time on the tournament stage as if they weren’t there at all. Expansion would at least put many at large teams in the same boat, and perhaps even give them an increased chance at winning games more often.
Conversely, detractors argue that expansion would dilute the field and destroy the current reputation of the tournament. Currently, the lowest at-large teams are generally 12-seeds, and the lowest to ever make a final four is an 11-seed. They argue that there is no point to expansion as the new teams have virtually no chance at winning.
Currently, the selection committee splits teams into three categories before making the final bracket. 31 teams are given automatic bids based on their status as conference champion, 34 more are given at-large status by the committee based on selection criteria, and the rest are left out of the tournament.
My proposal is to create a four-tiered system. There would still be 31 auto bids, but the committee would only give 29 guaranteed at-large berths. Eight more teams would be given the chance to earn their way into the field with the rest being left out.
This is not a 68 team bracket, but rather a 64 team bracket with the last four spots determined by true play-in games. The committee would first announce the 68 teams, and only make the bracket after the four play-in games, with the losers free to participate in the NIT as consolation.
The eight teams who are put in the play-in games would play each other based on their position in the S-curve (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc.) regardless of conference affiliation, but just like in the current bracket, the exact S-curve positions would not be released as to give teams already in the tournament an advantage by being able to speculate who they might play in advance. Once these games are played, the seeds, matchups, and exact locations of tournament games would then be announced.
To avoid changing the current Thursday start of the tournament while still allowing teams enough time to travel, the schedule would need to be pushed up by a few days. Currently, major conferences have their final regular season games on a weekend with the conference tournaments starting midweek. This would be shifted, with the final regular season games taking place midweek, and the conference tournaments starting that weekend.
Adding a few days on the front end of the season should not have much of an ill effect on academic schedules. Even from a television standpoint, there would be more daytime conference tournament games on the weekend, with the championships taking place in prime time during the week.
The list of tournament teams and the play-in matchups would be announced midweek, with the games taking place the weekend prior to the tournament. This would provide a much more exciting atmosphere to the play-in round as compared to the current play-in game, which provides little more than a footnote to the tournament landscape.
Based on ESPN’s current projections, possible play-in matchups would include games between Big East rivals, UConn and Louisville, and a BCS vs. mid-major battle between Maryland and Wichita State.
The beauty is that even if a team like Wichita State would fail to get into the main bracket, they could still participate in the NIT with a valuable opportunity to get more exposure and post-season experience. The current bubble issues would be somewhat resolved as the line between teams who are in and out gets blurred, though there will always be unhappy teams, no matter how big the tournament is.
This scenario creates virtually no losers. Almost everybody gets what they want. The teams on the bubble get to decide who is in and out on the court. Mid-majors have a few more tournament spots to strive for. Low-major teams are allowed back into the bracket. The NCAA and the television network have a greater opportunity to make more money, and the fans get extra meaningful basketball games to watch.