NCAA To Expand Tourney: How To Stage a 96-Team Field, or Better Yet, 88

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NCAA To Expand Tourney: How To Stage a 96-Team Field, or Better Yet, 88
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
sample 32-team bracket in 96-team field  
96 teams, 32 per regional (click)  

As someone who runs tournaments and mints brackets for a living, here's how I would've structured the new 96-team format the NCAA just announced.

First of all, since I'm an NBA guy, I'm all for the expansion because it allows NBA'ers to better evaluate draft prospects under one roof—but that's for another blog post.

NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen yesterday suggested the following changes to the existing 65-team format:

1. Eliminate the 65th- vs 64th-seeded play-in game.

This was originally played on Tuesday, two days after the last conference tournament championships on Sunday.

2. The top eight seeds in each of the four regionals get a first-round bye.

Therefore, there are sixteen teams competing for the bottom eight spots in each regional. It follows that there will now be 24 teams in each regional.

24 x 4 = 96.

3. The new play-in games among the No. 9 through No. 24 seeds will occur on Thursday and Friday, effectively pushing everything back one round.

This leaves an extra two days of games to reach the Sweet Sixteen—one day for half the field.

This extra round causes an overflow to be held the Tuesday and Wednesday immediately following the first weekend. That means the Sweet Sixteen will still continue as normally scheduled, on the following Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

There is controversy surrounding the fact that a team that happens to traverse the bracket will have to miss almost an entire week's worth of classes.


The issue I have is that if you click on this NCAA-proposed 24-team regional bracket above (remember, there's four of these regional brackets!), it becomes incredibly confusing for fans.

It completely alters the established fun of bracket-filling. Yep, now you have to fill out an additional 32 bracket pairings, or eight more bracket pairings per regional (8 x 4 = 32)!

And the strategy does not do that much to eliminate the blowouts we so often see among the No. 1 vs No. 16 and No. 2 vs No. 15 matchups.

Improve, Not Intrude

In the following descriptions, I'm going to loosely use the terms "NIT" and "play-in," so that it's a bit easier to follow.

My idea centers around the notion that the NIT is the play-in for the NCAA. Officially, the whole thing would be called the NCAAs, and they'd probably eliminate the "NIT" moniker.

There is a better way that is less confusing, and does a better job of eliminating the throw-away, low-seeded blowouts.

I'd actually even go further to say that an 88-team format is the absolute best. I can understand the NCAA not wanting to eliminate nine teams though.

Sixty-five in the NCAA plus 32 in the NIT, in the present system, minus my 88-team suggestion, means there would be nine fewer teams in the NCAA + NIT.

That'd be nine more teams for the upstart/obscure CBI and CIT tournaments—not a good competitive business move by the NCAA.

If it were up to me, the NIT would become the play-in for the last few seeds in the NCAA.

After all, in the present system the NIT starts on the Tuesday after conference tournament championship weekend.

The underlying assumption for doing this is that East Tennessee State probably would have still lost to Dayton or UNC, the NIT finalists. Most casual observers would rather see Kentucky play against a recognizable name, such as a Dayton or a UNC, in the first round of a 64-team field, not an obscure team that happened to win an automatic bid.

You'd get less of a fan revolt by explaining that you're merely attaching the NIT field to the existing NCAA bracket, effectively letting at-large teams go to war over just the last two seeds per regional.

Best Alternative: 88 Teams

To the casual observer, the notion of the NIT champion being the 66th-best team this season would still hold.

With my 88-team system, it's less of intrusion into the 64-team field and more of an improvement of the bottom feeders.

"We're not really rocking your world all that much," is what the NCAA should say.

88-team play-in format  
88 teams, 22 per regional (click)  

So, you start with 32 NIT-ish teams on Tuesday at the same 16 venues that make up the current 64-team field—four teams per venue in the first round.

By Wednesday morning, you're left with 16 teams. On Wednesday night, the 16 teams play again to whittle the field down to eight.

The remaining eight NIT-ish teams are given the No. 15 and No. 16 seeds in each of the four regionals. For example, it'd be No. 16 UNC versus No. 1 Kentucky and No. 16 Dayton versus No. 1 Duke.

There'd be a much, much better chance of a No. 16 overthrowing a No. 1 than before. And a No. 2 beating a No. 15 would be far more likely than it is today.

Quite simply, there would be fewer 30-point blowouts in the No. 1 and No. 2 first-round games. From an NBA perspective, those are currently throw-away games, because you can't really continue to evaluate John Wall in a blowout. And does anybody still tune in to those No. 1 versus No. 16 games?

Besides, an 88-team field certainly has a lot more marketing potential than 96. Eighty-eight is just a more aesthetically pleasing number than ninety-six.

96 Teams, If You Must

Let's assume the NCAA absolutely cannot let go of 96 teams, instead of my proposed 88.

I just think they haven't thought about the mathematics of bracketing when they simply add the NIT's 32 to the NCAA's 64—okay, 65—to get to 96.

It's so back-of-the-napkin right now.

If you have 88, then you're letting eight teams go to the competition (CBI or CIT). I can understand the business decision, but I still like the elegance of the number "88."

The fact that you are effectively making the No. 1 vs No. 16 and No. 2 vs No. 15 games more competitive outweighs the loss of eight—okay, nine—teams, but that's just me.

So, let's expand my 88-team format to 96.

It's clunky, but it's do-able. You end up with 44 NIT teams vying for the No. 16, No. 15, and No. 14 spots, instead of just the No. 16 and No. 15 seeds in the 88-team format.

With three NCAA bottom seeds per regional up for grabs, that means you have 13 seeds locked and loaded.

13 x 4 = 52 and 96 - 52 = 44. That's how we arrive at 44 NIT-ish teams.

With 44 NIT teams, that's 11 per region. Here's where it gets clunky, because 11 is not a "nice" tournament number to work with.

Again, you're vying for the No. 14, No. 15, and No. 16 seeds in each region.

As a bracket-maker and someone who determines the seeds, you have to assume that you were fair in your seeding and that all the top seeds will advance.

Of course, it never ends up that way, but at least you covered your bases and did your best in fair seeding.

That being said, you must assume the No. 1 NIT seed in that regional will survive and be the best team from that field. It follows that with 11 NIT teams per regional, the assumed No. 1 team should have earned the right to play the assumed lowest-seeded team, the No. 2 against the next-lowest, and so on and so forth.

a better 96-team bracket  
96-team bracket, bottom 3 seeds play-in per regional (click)  

That results in a first-round NIT bye for the No. 1 NIT seed in each regional.

Again, the sanctity of the top 64 slots is maintained. It is only altered with an appendage that determines the bottom three seeds in each regional, or the bottom 12 seeds overall.

That means 52 seeds are as good as they've always been.

Read the remainder of the analysis at Poor Man's Commish

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