There has been a lot of talk about the possible expansion of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship from its current 65 team bracket to as many as 96 teams.
Many are just fine with the current bracket (myself included), but a bracket expansion at some point seems likely. There appears to be a willing market for additional tournament games and most coaches are more than happy to increase their chances of making the tournament.
The question is, who would benefit the most from the extra spots in the tournament? Some believe this would give mid-major schools more opportunities to receive at-large berths into the field.
Cynics would counter that most of the at-large spots would go to even more mediocre power conference teams and the mid-majors would face an even tougher path to the later rounds.
The best way to figure out who would benefit the most is to actually attempt to do a bracketology of a 96-team bracket and see how it turns out. Before we do that, there are a few issues that would need to be solved before bracket expansion could occur.
1) How would the date formula work?
With a seventh round of games in play, the clean and simple "two games each week for three weeks" formula no longer works. Yes, currently there is an opening-round game on the Tuesday prior to the main draw starting on Thursday now.
But there is a major difference between getting two teams to Dayton and getting 64 teams to at least eight locations across the U.S. in a day.
So the two options that seem to present themselves are to add a week and make it a four-week tournament or to play three games in one of the weeks.
If you add a week, you will have a week where teams only play one game. Having a play-in weekend and having the current 64-team tournament start the next weekend seems like an OK idea at first.
But the 32 teams that have a bye into the second round would have at least 10 days off between games. If you are a mid-major team that plays its conference tournament earlier, that break could easily exceed two weeks. That would create a bowl game type rust factor that no one wants.
Pushing the single-game weekend later into the tournament also has its drawbacks. March Madness has its own rhythm about it and slowing down the flow of games to a trickle might kill the momentum of the tournament.
Added a third game into a week isn't a picnic either, but might be the more palatable option. Creating a three-game regional round after the first two rounds is possible. You could play Thursday-Saturday-Monday or Friday-Sunday-Tuesday, with the Final Four still starting the next Saturday (or push it back to Sunday).
Condensing the format to three games in four days is possible, but would probably met some backlash from the coaches.
The other option would be to make the Final Four an Elite Eight, like Division II does. This would almost require a three game/four day format (say Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday). Coaches wouldn't be a fan, plus the NCAA has built up such brand equity in the Final Four that it would be doubtful that the NCAA would want to give that up.
2) Financial and Gender Equity Concerns
The NCAA believes that they can get a larger television contract with an expanded bracket, otherwise it wouldn't be exploring this option.
With more teams, however, come more expenses. There would be 31 more teams to pay travel expenses to and extra days worth of per diem paid to 64 of the 96 teams.
Conferences currently receive shares of revenue based on the performance of their teams in the tournament. A conference gets a share for every team their conference places in the tournament and another share for each round those teams win. So, if an ACC team makes the tournament and advances to the Sweet 16, that team earns three shares for the ACC (one for appearing, plus two for the two wins).
The value of each of the 125 available shares in each tournament is now over $200,000, paid each year for the next six years.
With an expansion to 96 teams, the formula for this revenue distribution would have to be adjusted. Would the 32 bye teams get credit for a win? Or would getting a bye in fact be some de facto financial penalty?
There would have to be at least 191 shares in a 96-team bracket and maybe as many as 255. A one-bid conference that fails to win a game could see its revenue cut in half.
The NCAA would have to strongly consider expanding the women's tournament bracket to 96 teams as well. Not doing so could be considered a violation of Title IX. Currently, the NCAA women's tournament is not a profit maker in the earlier rounds (it makes up for it at the Final Four and regionals). So extending the early rounds may be a bit of a financial drain.
3) Academic Issues
Despite the John Walls of the world who will be declaring for the draft the day after their team is eliminated and probably never step foot inside a classroom again, most players are true student-athletes who are actually trying to get an education.
Adding another round to the tournament will most likely increase missed class time in a sport where student-athletes already miss plenty of classes.
In a four-week tournament, the increase of missed class time may not be that bad. The single-game weekend would have the games on Saturday and Sunday (maybe a few Friday). So teams would leave for their tournament sites no earlier than Wednesday afternoon (for a Friday game) and more likely Thursday or Friday.
A lot of students don't have large class loads on Fridays, so the time out of the classroom would be minimal.
In a three-week tournament, missed class time would definitely increase, unless the teams give up an off day and play three games in four days. Teams playing in sites that begin on Thursday leave campus on Tuesday, and in a three-game regional weekend, possibly wouldn't return until the next Tuesday.
That's a full week of missed class, and if they advanced to the Final Four, would leave campus again on Thursday.
Now let's take a look at the bracket itself. In a 96-team bracket, 32 teams will receive byes to the second round. These would be the top eight seeds in each region.
In doing my bracketology, I used the current NCAA guidelines for establishing the bracket, using their selection criteria and with each conference getting one automatic bid. The only limiting factor I put in was that a team had to maintain at least a .500 overall record (not a .500 conference record).
16 North Carolina/17 Kent State vs. 1 Kansas
9 BYU/24 Jackson State vs. 8 Louisville
12 Marquette/21 Nevada vs. 5 Vanderbilt
13 Charlotte/20 Tulsa vs. 4 Wisconsin
14 UAB/19 Northwestern vs. 3 Temple
11 Seton Hall/22 UC Santa Barbara vs. 6 Clemson
10 Washington/23 Coastal Carolina vs. 7 Missouri
15 William & Mary/18 Cornell vs. 2 Villanova
16 Minnesota/17 Miami (FL) vs. 1 Kentucky
9 Rhode Island/24 Stony Brook vs. 8 Oklahoma State
12 St. John's/21 New Mexico State vs. 5 Wake Forest
13 Saint Mary's/20 Missouri State vs. 4 New Mexico
14 Old Dominion/19 Saint Louis vs. 3 Texas A&M
11 Cincinnati/22 Oakland vs. 6 Michigan State
10 California/23 Robert Morris vs. 7 Maryland
15 Mississippi/18 Memphis vs. 2 West Virginia
16 Marshall/17 South Carolina vs. 1 Duke
9 Gonzaga/24 Lehigh vs. 8 Connecticut
12 Utah State/21 Wofford vs. 5 Xavier
13 South Florida/20 Weber State vs. 4 Baylor
14 Arizona State/19 Northeastern vs. 3 Pittsburgh
11 Illinois/22 Duquesne vs. 6 Tennessee
10 UNLV/23 Morgan State vs. 7 Georgia Tech
15 Wichita State/18 Siena vs. 2 Kansas State
16 Mississippi State/17 VCU vs. 1 Syracuse
9 Dayton/24 North Texas vs. 8 Ohio State
12 Virginia Tech/21 Arizona vs. 5 Butler
13 San Diego State/20 Notre Dame vs. 4 Texas
14 Texas Tech/19 Murray State vs. 3 Georgetown
11 Florida/22 Sam Houston State vs. 6 Northern Iowa
10 Florida State/23 Jacksonville vs. 7 Richmond
15 UTEP/18 Louisiana Tech vs. 2 Purdue
Looking at the entire bracket, the Power Six or BCS conferences would dominate a 96-team field. In this bracket, they hold 48 of the 96 spots, meaning they get 42 of the now 65 at-large berths.
Big East - 13 teams
ACC - 9 teams
Big 12 - 8 teams
Big 10 - 7 teams
SEC - 7 teams
Pac 10 - 4 teams
In addition, those six conferences would earn 26 of the top 32 seeds and byes to the second round. This isn't much different from previous tournaments, where the power six conferences earned 25 or 26 of the top 32 seeds. This gives the power six conferences a pretty big advantage in getting to the Final Four.
The four conferences I like to call the straddler conferences (the Mountain West, Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, and the Missouri Valley) also do well in this scenario.
They're not a power six conference, but have more resources and success than other mid-major conferences. These four conferences get 20 spots, including 16 at-large berths. They also get five of the first-round byes. That's not unusual either, in the past three tournaments, the straddlers have averaged 4.3 top 32 seeds.
Atlantic 10 - 8 teams
Conference USA - 5 teams
Mountain West - 4 teams
Missouri Valley - 3 teams
The other 21 conferences, the true mid-majors, don't get much help from this bracket expansion. They only get 28 berths, meaning they get just seven of the 65 at-large spots in the field. Only Butler was able to lock down a first-round bye. But that's not unusual either, these conferences only produce one or two top 32 seeds historically.
Mid-major conferences receiving multiple berths:
Western Athletic - 4 teams
Colonial Athletic - 4 teams
West Coast - 2 teams
The one positive for the true mid-majors is for those conferences that usually occupy the 15 and 16 seed lines of the current bracket. Those teams now have a better shot of winning a game facing No. 9 and No. 10 seeds than No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Stony Brook certainly has a better shot at knocking off Rhode Island in the first round then beating Oklahoma State in the second round to get to the round of 32 as opposed to just beating No. 1 seed Kentucky in the current first round.
Number one seeds may not like the expanded bracket either. Instead of playing an over-matched 16 seed, they would play the winner of a 16/17 game that could be pretty threatening on the right day. Despite their struggles, I'm sure North Carolina isn't a team that Bill Self and Kansas would like to open their tournament with.
There are some positives in expanding the bracket, but not enough to outweigh the negatives and potential harm it may do to the smaller schools. Unless you enjoy watching mediocre power conference teams dueling each other, the current bracket is the way to go.
At least until the money makes it irresistible to expand.