3 Ways to Improve the NCAA Tournament
Every March, the NCAA Tournament captivates fans and casual office pool players. It is one of the great sporting events. However, it is not perfect. It could use a couple of tweaks to make it even better.
Here are three ways to improve the current format of the NCAA Tournament.
Return to a 64-Team Field
Let’s start the talk of improvement where it logically belongs. The NCAA should return the number of bids to 64. The experiment with 65 teams and the play-in game was nice. The expansion of the field to 68 teams and the creation of the First Four is a little excessive.
It’s hard to argue that the First Four games and the teams that play in them are irrelevant since Virginia Commonwealth played in the inaugural First Four and then made it to the Final Four.
But I am a basketball purist, and rarely do you find a sporting event better packaged for television and formatted like March Madness.
Consider the fact office pools do not require you to complete your bracket BEFORE the First Four. Doesn't that show how little it is regarded? Plus, who wants to fly to Dayton, OH on a Tuesday?
For the fans, the first time you should hear the iconic melody of the CBS NCAA Tournament theme song should be Thursday at noon when you’re leaving the office for your “extended lunch break,” “very important client visit” or “family emergency.”
(COMMENT NOW: What was the best excuse you ever used to get out of work/school to watch the NCAA Tournament first round games?)
Eliminate the First Four and go back to a field of 64 teams. That is the first way to improve the NCAA Tournament.
Eliminate the Automatic Bids
The automatic bid for each conference should be eliminated because the NCAA Tournament should include the 64 best teams in the country.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a bad year to argue the teams who represent the smaller conferences don’t have an impact on the tournament. I’m sure fans of Duke and Missouri will never forget the smaller conference foes that vanquished them from this past year’s tournament.
However, while the Lehighs and Norfolk States of the world might pull an upset in the first round and ruin the title aspirations for a top seed, for the most part teams seeded No. 14 or lower have had a very poor record in the NCAA Tournament.
Isn’t the tournament better as a whole if the best 64 teams are invited to compete? Isn’t the road to the Final Four and national championship tougher if Kentucky has to play the 64th best team in the country in their opening round game instead of Western Kentucky (who was ranked 189th in RPI)?
There’s no guarantee the 64th best team would have played Kentucky any tougher than Western Kentucky (lost 81-66) but in some seasons and some tournaments a stronger No .16 seed could give a No. 1 seed problems and even win the game.
But if the NCAA were to adopt this recommendation, there would have to be changes to the regular season to ensure that smaller conference teams had the opportunity to prove themselves against top opponents.
There's a Big East-SEC challenge, so perhaps the NCAA requires the Big East to also have a Big East-MEAC challenge. This gives the selection committee the chance to evaluate the MEAC against other teams who are among the country's best.
Automatic bids are a good thing. It allows for each conference to be represented in the tournament, but if the goal is to determine the best team in the country, it’s only logical that the best 64 teams should be invited to contend for the title.
Allow Each Team to Draft Their Position in the Bracket
If there is one thing sports fans love, it’s a draft. The NFL draft routinely gets strong television ratings even though the players selected will not step foot on the field in a meaningful game for months.
Why not add a draft wrinkle to the NCAA Tournament? Just imagine if you can…
It’s Selection Sunday, the selection committee just ranked the teams one through 64 and now a representative from each team is seated in Madison Square Garden, each one staring at a blank NCAA Tournament bracket…
And here we go…
“With the first pick in the draft, the Kentucky Wildcats will take the No. 1 seed in the South Region and will play their first round games in Louisville.”
Greg Anthony applauds. Greg Gumble interviews Coach John Calipari about his decision.
Then, three minutes later…
“With the second pick in the draft, the Syracuse Orange will take the No. 1 seed in the East Region and will play their first round games in Pittsburgh.”
Sure. The first couple of teams will have pretty boring and predictable picks, but then we get to the sixth pick and the Duke Blue Devils. Do they take the No. 2 seed in the South and face Kentucky in the Elite Eight? Or would Coach K rather go elsewhere? Atlanta is pretty close to home for Duke, but is it worth a few extra miles of travel to avoid Kentucky for as long as possible?
The draft would make teams want to be ranked in the Top 15, so they could also pick where they’d play their first round games. Obviously, if you are drafting 13th, you might have to pick between a site far away from campus and a site farther away from competition, but you’d still get a choice.
Coaches get paid based on how far they advance in the NCAA Tournament. It’d be fascinating to see how they try to navigate their team through the bracket.
Do you take a higher seed?
Or do you take a spot in a bracket where you’ll play closer to home?
If you’re a team like Georgetown, do you avoid Big East foes for as long as you can? Or would you prefer a matchup against the "familiar opponent" and avoid the unknown?
So many scenarios. So many questions to answer.
Do you see how much fun this would be? It’d be instant bulletin board material for some teams. Which team decides to play in the eight-versus-nine game knowing that a win means they’re going up against Kentucky in the next round?
You could argue for restrictions on how you draft. For example, when it comes time for the fourth pick (last year it would have been Michigan State), Michigan State can select the remaining No. 1 seed (assuming the first three teams choose to be No. 1 seeds themselves) or a No. 2 seed in one of the other three brackets. However, Michigan State cannot pick something random like the No. 4 seed. This ensures that the strongest teams in each bracket are the highest seeds in each bracket.
But, I don’t like this rule personally, because some teams will want to play closer to home, and would be willing to play a tougher team and take a lower seed in order to do so. So why restrict the teams at all?
No restrictions! Chart your course and then let’s play.
The draft order would be based on the NCAA Selection Committee's final rankings. Also, only 64 teams are drafting. Sorry Lamar, Mississippi Valley State, Vermont and Western Kentucky.