Two Shining Moments: Expanding the NCAA Tournament Field To 96

Jeff PencekCorrespondent IIMarch 4, 2010

HARTFORD, CT - FEBRUARY 13: Kemba Walker #15 of the Connecticut Huskies drives toward the basket against the Cincinnati Bearcats at the XL Center on February 13, 2010 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

As more news comes out about the opt-out opportunities for the NCAA in their television coverage of the basketball championships, an expansion of the tournament looms as a probability.

The worst case scenario involves a broad expansion of the field to 96 teams. Coaches are in favor of the expansion because it works as a job security measure for mediocre teams. Vegas is in favor of expansion because of additional gambling opportunities.

Most fans want no part of a 96 team field, since a bloated field would take away the event feel the first weekend of the tournament currently has, and would make filling out a winning bracket a NASA experiment.

I decided to take a different approach to the 96 team field, to see if it could be exciting and interesting and sway me as a fan.

My first step was to create two 96 team brackets using current seeding methods. Method 1 involves seeding the first 65 teams like they are seeded now, and then the next best at-large teams fill up the remaining 31 seeds. In this case, a Jackson State would remain a 16 seed.

The best first round games from that bracket are below:

Siena vs. Seton Hall

Weber State vs. Washington

Murray State vs. Louisiana Tech

Florida vs. Tulsa

Sam Houston State vs. Ole Miss

Dayton vs. Kent State

Method One is not necessarily setting the world on fire. Maybe because when I picked the 31 at-large teams, I picked teams that at least are close to a winning record in their conference. Miami and UNC do not see the light of day here.

Method Two involves ranking the 96 teams in order, so an automatic bid winner like a Jackson State would be a 24 seed. The best first round games from that bracket are below:

William & Mary vs. Kent State

Washington vs. Louisiana Tech

Sam Houston State vs. Seton Hall

Method Two is amazingly worse. This method would lean towards smaller schools being 21-24 seeds, and seeing them play mediocre at large teams brings almost no excitement to anything. Wow, Quinnipiac beat Florida St. and gets lucky enough to lose to Syracuse by 30. The smaller schools arenโ€™t going to pull two upsets in a row.

This 96 team system so far seems doomed for mass failure. I believe I can create a system to make it work, using a few rules to tweak the system without ruining it.

1. The conference champion automatically makes the 96 team field

The biggest argument against this would be ruining championship week. Iโ€™ll get to that in a minute. The regular season should hold importance, and if a team achieves over 2-3 months of conference excellence, they should automatically have a chance to compete for the title.

2. A team must have a winning record in their conference or be in the top 60 percent of their conference

Yes, the top 60 percent appears to be very lenient, but is done to allow big conferences to get a lot of teams while having them achieve at the same time. Ten Big East teams could make the field if they earned it.

Miami and UNC once again would not be in it under this scenario. I have to get to 96 teams somehow.

3. The conference tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the 96 team field

Just like now, a conference tournament winner earns a bid into the tournament. With Rule One in effect, this rule appears to cause a conflict. Why would the regular season champion even try to win their conference tournament if already in?

4. If a team wins their conference regular season and post-season tournament, they earn a first round bye

Now we have some real incentive. Imagine how much a Murray State or Weber State would battle in their conference tournament if they know they could be one of the 32 teams not playing an extra round.

Championship week would be turned up a notch with every conference tournament having meaning because no team can cruise. Butler would be guaranteed a spot in the tournament but lose in the Horizon tournament and they might have to play an extra game.

I ran Method Three using the incredibly unlikely scenario that every team won their conference and tournament (and that the Ivy League created a tournament). It at least provides a example showing what the tournament change would do. The best games from this scenario are as follows:

Louisville vs. Illinois

Marquette vs. Memphis

Georgetown vs. Louisiana Tech

Florida State vs. Washington

Mississippi State vs. UConn

Virginia Tech vs. Arizona State

Vanderbilt vs. Harvard

(I put the last one on the list showing that the Cinderella scenario fans love can still happen in the first round, and would continue to Round One with new Cinderella teams.)

5. Re-seeding after Round One

At first I had no re-seeding, but it has to be done this way in order to reward the best teams. Under Method Three's worst case scenario, Kansas and West Virginia could meet in the round of 32. That doesnโ€™t work at all.

In reality, the only way to avoid this would be to reseed after every round, which would be a logistical nightmare and impossibility. Scenarios One and Two would not have the same issue but would still provide problems along with ruining the fun of gambling.

There is a solution to where re-seeding can work.

6. Embrace the Current System

College basketball is great because of the championship week leading to Selection Sunday to a two day period with 32 games. Whatever expansion takes place for the tournament should follow the same format, and can with 96 teams. All it would take would be two 64 team brackets.

The conference tournaments end, and we come to Selection Sunday One. This would showcase the 32 teams getting a bye and then announce the 64 teams who have to play one game to make the second bracket. The first bracket can even be designed to keep a majority of teams close to home, as the games would still be over a two-day period at 8 different locations. Friday and Saturday would be preferable.

Once the games are completed, the bracket ends, and the teams feed into the pool of the other 32 teams. This gives us Selection Sunday Two.

Selection Sunday Two is exactly the same format as the current tournament, without a Tuesday play-in game. Vanderbilt could play in Round One but still be a 3-seed in Bracket Two, and Jackson State could still be a 16 seed yet have a bye for Round One.

This structure keeps everything about the tournament that is loved in tact while expanding to create two more days of basketball and extending the postseason by one week.

I want the tournament to remain at 65. Expanding to 96 teams would reward too much mediocrity. Just consider how tough it is to find 34 worthy at-large teams this year.

I like my system though. If the NCAA is serious about creating a 96 team field, it should seriously consider my ideas.


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