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NCAA Tournament, Let's Change You Too

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It's time to make March Madness even bigger... and make the entire sport better.

With a 96-team field, this picture of Dominique Jones against Vanderbilt could have been from a 2010 NCAA Tournament game.
With a 96-team field, this picture of Dominique Jones against Vanderbilt could have been from a 2010 NCAA Tournament game.
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't read it already, take a look at Collin's quality rant about the sad state of college basketball, and some great ideas to fix it.

I've got my own set of ideas to improve the game, but mine are mostly about the post-season. We're going to give March Madness an overhaul just as radical as Collin's ten-minute quarters, pro wrestling-style callouts, and Designated Nerd.

Of all NCAA institutions, the post-season basketball tournament is probably the one that fans are most resistant to change. The tournament works, they say. It makes money. It's great television. It gives the small schools a shot. Leave it alone, they say. I submit that expanding the NCAA Tournament would generate even more of those good things, and make the sport better all around.

We will expand the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams.

Why?

Why expand the tournament? Isn't the postseason bloated enough as it is? Do we want March Madness to look like bowl season? On the contrary, there are many good reasons to enlarge the NCAA Tournament.

Inflation. When the NCAA Tournament first went to 64 teams in 1985, there were 282 teams in Division I. Now, there are 351. You'd have to expand to 80 teams just to keep the same percentage of qualifiers. (Actually 79, but we need an even number.) We're already halfway there, so let's go ahead and jump to 96 teams in anticipation of future growth.

Opportunity. With only 36 at-large bids available now, too many good teams are being denied any chance at making the tournament. The NCAA has become too exclusive. It's time to open it up again.

We all know the sad story of Murray State, who dominated their conference, then lost the conference tournament  final when a clock malfunction gave their opponent a chance to draw up a 3-point play. They were 25-5 overall, hadn't lost a game since November, caught one bad break, and can't even get into the discussion. 25 wins doesn't even make you a bubble team anymore. They started 2-4, and won every other game except for the conference final. Which means that after their fourth loss in a 30-game season, they were eliminated from everything except the automatic bid. That's not a good thing.

And it's not just the little teams being squeezed. It used to be, 20 wins was the magic number if you played in a major conference. The NIT is now littered with big schools who met that goal: Miami, Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi, UCLA(!), and Indiana(!) are all very much on the bubble. As are mid-majors Temple, Tulsa, BYU, Colorado State, Old Dominion, and Boise State, who all went well over 20 wins.

And doing it consistently doesn't help. Louisiana Tech has won 77 regular-season games in 3 years, and never gotten anywhere near the NCAA Tournament. Makes you wonder why their coach Michael White doesn't take the first bus out of town. (You may recall, White was an early candidate to replace Stan Heath at USF. We ended up with a different basketball coach. And a different Mike White. But I digress.)

Revenue. The NCAA Tournament is an incredible source of revenue, for the organization and the schools. In 2012, the TV rights alone were worth $681 million, accounting for 84 percent of the NCAA's revenue. Not 84% of the NCAA's basketball revenue. 84% of all NCAA revenue. TV ratings and ad revenues for the NCAA tournament set new records every year. Even the First Four games in Dayton are delivering solid and ever-improving TV ratings.

The saturation point doesn't seem to have been reached yet. More NCAA games would just mean more money for everyone. And we're all going to need that money, with power conference autonomy and various lawsuits winding their way through.

Attendance. It's not just Collin who's becoming disenchanted with the sport. College basketball has a serious attendance problem. Average attendance at NCAA basketball games has dropped every year since 2008, including a more than two-percent drop from 2013 to 2014. And not just at the smaller schools. The SEC has asked ESPN to take steps to help their attendance, and there has been much hand-wringing in the Pac-12.

There are many possible reasons for this drop -- the Pac-10 article linked above lists many of the popular theories -- but I want to focus on one thing: the regular season is too long, and too meaningless.

There are too many regular season games, and too few of them have any real stakes. The one-and-done format of the postseason is what makes it so mesmerizing, but it renders the regular season irrelevant. If you're not one of the few schools that can get into the at-large discussion any given year, the conference tournament is really all that matters.

Expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams will increase regular season attendance by creating more meaningful games, and giving more fans a reason to hope. We'll talk more about this as we go.

How?

How would a Field of 96 work?

Qualification: Most of the teams that currently make the NIT would now make the NCAA Tournament. (Since the NCAA Tournament has 68 teams, we only need to add 28 teams from the current NIT to get 96.)

Automatic Qualification: Currently, conference tournament champions earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and regular season winners to go the NIT if they don't make the NCAA. Now, regular season conference champions will also earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

This is one of the ways an expanded NCAA Tournament will add value to the regular season. When regular season champions go straight to the NCAA, there will be dozens of regular-season games with postseason implications. There will be matchups to watch, scenarios to work out, and tiebreakers to learn in every conference. Teams can now clinch an automatic NCAA bid in their own gym. Imagine the fan interest for that, especially in the smaller conferences. Every league could have a thrilling regular-season championship game, like Harvard and Yale just played.

Isn't it backwards that the winner of the 3-game tournament goes to the big dance and the winner of the 18-game regular season gets the Flokati Rug? Conference tournaments are great, and we don't want to diminish them. But let's make the regular season just as valuable.

And let's incorporate Collin's idea that the #1 seed gets a bye to the semi-finals, then gets to pick its semi-final opponent from the other three teams. When the first semi-final game arrives, bring all four teams onto the floor, dressed and ready to play, and give the #1 team a microphone. The #1 team and their chosen opponent go back to the locker rooms to await the second game, and the other two teams tip off right then.

This also ties in to Collin's idea of rewarding teams who can adjust on the fly. It's the conference tournament, you play these teams every year, you should know Austin Peay's offense by now.

Side note: since the Ivy League doesn't play a conference tournament, we'll accept their first- and second-place regular season teams. This is an extension of Collin's Designated Nerd idea: walk-ons will now consume at least 1 of the 200 minutes of every game, and 2 of the 96 NCAA bids every year.

Schedule: An extra week would be added to the postseason, between conference tournament week and the 64-team round of the NCAA Tournament. This new week of competition (and lucrative television) will be called Playoff Week, for marketing purposes. It would go Championship Week, Playoff Week, March Madness. Sound good?

To make room for Playoff Week, we will shorten the regular season by one week. All other things kept the same, this would eliminate two games from the regular season.

This is another way we will make the college basketball regular season better: by eliminating the least interesting games. Look at any team's schedule, and there's plenty of games that none of their fans would miss. Could you survive without two of USF's seven games against Jackson State, Jacksonville, Hofstra, Bowling Green, Georgia Southern, Detroit, and Southeastern Louisiana?

In today's world of dynamic ticket pricing, there's a case for chopping the least-appealing games from your ticket inventory. There are other good reasons to play fewer games as well, such as lowering the physical and mental demands made on student-athletes.

Bracketing: How will a 96-team bracket work?

The NCAA Selection Committee will seed the 96 teams 1 through 24, with four different teams at each seed, much like they do now. However, only the 1 through 8 seeds will be seeded directly into the Round of 64, and assigned to geographic regions and game sites.

The 9 through 24 seeds will be assigned to single games against each other, in accordance with seeding principles (9 vs 24, 10 vs 23, etc.). These single games will take place in eight different cities across the country, with each city hosting four games over two nights, just like Dayton does now with the First Four. These games would play on a Wednesday night-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday afternoon schedule, with every game getting its own exclusive window. Playoff Week would be a whole other week of college basketball nirvana.

The 32 winners of these games are then re-seeded into the bracket to face the 1-8 seeds. The 64-team tournament would then run as it always has.

Fringe Benefits

More revenue, more fan interest, more good basketball, less bad basketball, and a whole other week of March Madness. And there's more where that came from! There are so many side benefits that this article ran way longer than I intended.

More Bracketology! If you're a bracketology geek, or make a good living as part of the Bubble Watch Industrial Complex, great news: you'll have even more teams, more seeds, and more implications to talk about!

In the last section, we talked about how the Top 8 seeds will get a bye straight to the Round of 64. This creates a whole new paradigm that must be contended for. Currently, there's no drama in the the middle seeds. It's all about the top seeds and the bubble. The teams in the middle seeds now have to sweat their conference tournament and late-season games, to preserve that top 8 seed.. Get an 8 seed, and skip the first round; get a 9 seed, and be forced to face some obnoxious underdog in Albuquerque.

Once again, the 96-team tournament raises the stakes of games that currently have none.

More Selection Sunday! If you love Selection Sunday, you'll really love having two Selection Sundays!

As outlined above, the first Selection Sunday will unveil only the top 8 seeds, and the pairings of the 9-24 seeds. It does not reveal pairings in the Round of 64, or even which region the 9-24 winners will play in. We will need a second selection show for that, after the Playoff Week results are in, to announce the pairings of Playoff Week winners and the top 8-seeded bye teams. (This is why we don't play Sunday evening games in Playoff Week; so there is time for the selection committee to finalize and announce the final 64-team bracket.)

Let's call the first show Selection Sunday and the second show Assignment Sunday.

More NCAA Games Near You! Currently, NCAA games are played at 14 different sites per year: eight in the first round, the four regional sites, the Final Four site, and Dayton. Now there will be 21 sites: eight for Playoff Week, eight for the Round of 64, four regionals, and one Final Four site. With several suitable venues in Florida, this great event will be within driving distance much more often. (You could even give two games each to 16 cities, or play at campus sites.)

And now that we know the kind of crowds that First Four games attract, we can let smaller venues bid for those games. It would bring a prestige event to cities that would never, or very infrequently, ever get to host one.

By the way, my plan would keep Dayton as a permanent host of Playoff Week games, in honor of their pioneering role hosting the First Four and, earlier play-in games. Ditto for Madison Square Garden, which will now host Playoff Week games every year in lieu of the post-season NIT, which will be discontinued or diminished.

More Upsets! This structure will eliminate the lopsided 16 vs 1 and 15 vs 2 matchups we have now. The small-conference winners that currently populate the 14-16 seeds will now be 21-24 seeds in Playoff Week, and most will be eliminated there. A few will get through, but the top seeds in the tournament will now face tougher competition early on. Instead of the #16 seed in the Round of 64 being a bottom-conference surprise winner, it would be an NIT-level team like Old Dominion or Illinois State (there aren't a lot of major-conference NIT candidates this year), or a good small-conference winner like Stephen F. Austin or Harvard.

Also, the Texas Southern and Robert Morris type schools would face less insurmountable odds. Their opponent would be a #9 seed instead of a #1. They'd draw NC State instead of Duke, Georgia instead of Kentucky, Purdue instead of Wisconsin. No #16 seed has ever beaten a #1, but a #24 will beat a #9 within a few years. And when that happens, and that team gets paired with Kentucky in the Round of 64, there'll be much more upset potential.

No More Burst Bubbles! Currently, every surprise conference tournament winner knocks a team off the bottom of the at-large pool. Once every conference has two automatic bids, the opposite will occur: when the same team wins the regular season and post-season, a new opening will be created. Instead of hoping not to slide off the bubble, teams can now hope to slide onto it. If you're a marginal bubble team who crapped the bed in the conference tournament, you'd still have something to hope for, instead of being dead in the water like Illinois and Mississippi are now.

No More Disincentives! Look at the below quote from a CBS Sportsline bracketology piece on Boise State. The NCAA Tournament is such an overwhelming consideration that this happens:

The Broncos beat Fresno State to clinch the top seed in the Mountain West tournament. That's both good and bad. It's good because they won the league, but it's bad because they can only beat either San Diego State or Colorado State to help their resume. Such a win would be in the championship game.

Congratulations on your championship, Boise! You just screwed yourself out of the NCAA Tournament!

When you can make a case that a team would have been better off losing a game, and losing a conference championship, it's time to rethink the whole system.

No More Play-In Games! The current 68-team system gives a small number of teams the disadvantage -- or, to some ways of thinking, advantage -- of playing an extra game before the tournament starts in earnest. To the greatest extent possible, everyone should start off on the same footing, with comparable rest and travel. Yes, 32 of the 96 teams would get a bye, but those who don't will have plenty of time to rest before the Round of 64, instead of being rushed to another game site like they are now.

There's also a stigma attached to the play-in games, because so few teams have to play them. If you win one, did you really win an NCAA Tournament game? If you lose one, did you really play in the NCAAs at all? That needs to die. Yes, some teams skip the first round, but everyone is unquestionably in the tournament proper and can celebrate accordingly.

No More NIT! Let's face it: nobody wants to play in the Post-season NIT. These games don't attract much interest whether on campus sites or at Madison Square Garden. Even small schools can't get excited about it. The 96-team tournament would do away with it entirely. Or make it a New York-only event with fewer teams, and teams more attractive to NYC hoops fans. The CIT and CBI can continue to operate if they wish; they would be little affected by this change.

Better Television! We've talked about how a 96-team tournament creates more meaningful regular season games. Well, those games will also be televised, and there will be some great opportunities for quality viewing on the ESPN family of networks.

To close out this past regular season, Charleston Southern defeated High Point in one of the best games you'll ever see. In this tiny little gym, CSU won 97-91 in three overtimes, in a game loaded with huge momentum swings and nervy three-point shots. As with the Tulsa-SMU and Fresno-Boise games mentioned earlier, an automatic bid would have been up for grabs. This would have heightened the tension even more, and give neutral observers a reason to be interested.

Better Travel! It will be easier for fans to travel to NCAA game sites. If you're a Top 8 seed, you'll know your team's assignment at least ten days in advance. Dozens of other teams will know they are in the safely Round of 96, either by getting an autobid or being a safe at-large team, and can clear their schedule knowing they are assured to go somewhere.

Better Nomenclature! The NCAA does a lot of stuff poorly, but naming things has got to be near the bottom of the list. They changed the perfectly serviceable I-A and I-AA labels into FBS and FCS. I can never remember which one is which. After expanding the NCAA Tournament beyond 64 teams, they started applying the term Second Round to what we've all been calling the First Round since 1979. They also refuse to embrace fan terms like "Sweet 16", calling that round the Regional Semifinals, or something equally bland and impenetrable.

From now on, progress in the tournament will be labelled Round of 96, Round of 64, Round of 32, etc., through Final Four, National Runner-Up, and National Champion. This is easy to understand, and allows for fair comparisons across eras. A small thing, you might think, but consistency is important.

Better Symmetry! Another minor note here, but I like the symmetry of a 96-team bracket that consists of 3 groups of 32 teams each. You've got your 32 regular season champions, your 32 conference tournament winners, and 32 at-large teams. You've got your top 32 teams that get byes, your middle 32 teams that are favored to get to the Round of 64, and your bottom 32 teams - the underdogs. If we're going to have an arbitrary number of participants, let's at least pick a good number.

More Chances for USF! To put it mildly, USF does not have a history of success at men's basketball. But USF has occasional good teams, and some of those in the past could have played for greater glory. Let's look at how some recent USF squads would fare under this system:

  • 2012: USF got a 12 seed, and would still be a 12 seed. But instead of playing fellow 12 seed California, they would have played a 21 seed. In this new paradigm, these would be the last at-large teams that made it into the field, or a good small conference winner (a 14 or 15 seed now).

    Looking at the seeds and RPIs of conference tournament winners and NIT autobid winners from that year, USF's first round opponent would have Mississippi State, LSU, Cleveland State (all NIT teams that year), or... Lehigh from the Patriot League. That was the C.J. McCollum Lehigh team that punched out Duke, so that would have been the draw to avoid.

    USF's Round of 64 opponent would depend upon how many upsets there were in Playoff Week. (The more 9-10-11 seeds lose, the higher USF moves in the 64 team bracket.) Given few upsets, the 12 seed would play about a 5 seed, and could slot in against Temple as they did in real life. (I put Ohio waaaaaaaay on the other side of the bracket.)

  • 2010: USF was a 3 seed in the NIT, which makes them about a 16 seed in the new system, and one of the last teams in. (Teams currently in the NIT occupy most of the 13-16 seeds.) Their opponent would be one of the better small conference winners. In 2010, that would be Murray State, Siena or Oakland. (I put N.C. State and Dennis Horner out of the bracket entirely.)

    A win for the Bulls would have paired them with a #1 or #2 seed: those were Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Ohio State, and Kansas State. We probably would have been blown out, but would you trade an NIT banner for the opportunity? (FUN FACT: USF is 2-0 all-time vs. Ohio State.)

USF would also have challenged for a bid in 2002, 1995, 1991, 1985 under Lee Rose, and been teased a little in some of the other Seth Greenberg "NIT Bubble" years.

Well, that's my very long argument for a 96-team NCAA Tournament. To wrap things up, I present to you the world's first 96-team projected bracket. It's what this year's field would look like in a 96-team tournament.

Everything in this bracket are based on the rules outlined above. The seeds and pairings are based on consensus brackets from bracketmatrix.com (including their projected NIT bracket), and the Nitty Gritty Report.

THE MAIN FIELD

MIDWEST (Cleveland) EAST (Syracuse) SOUTH (Houston) WEST (Los Angeles)
1 Kentucky (Louisville) 1 Villanova (Pittsburgh) 1 Duke (Charlotte) 1 Virginia (Charlotte)
8 Ohio State
8 Iowa
8 St. John's 8 VCU
4 Louisville (Jacksonville)
4 North Carolina (Jacksonville) 4 Baylor (Seattle) 4 N. Iowa (Columbus)
5 West Virginia 5 Arkansas
5 Utah
5 Butler
3 Notre Dame (Omaha) 3 Maryland (Pittsburgh) 3 Iowa State (Columbus) 3 Oklahoma (Portland)
6 SMU 6 Providence 6 Georgetown 6 Wichita State
2 Kansas (Omaha) 2 Arizona (Portland) 2 Wisconsin (Louisville) 2 Gonzaga (Seattle)
7 Michigan State
7 San Diego State
7 Xavier 7 Oregon


PLAYOFF WEEK

9 Cincinnati
9 Davidson
9 North Carolina State
9 Dayton
24 Robert Morris
24 Hampton 24 St. Francis (NY)
24 Manhattan
10 Colorado State
10 Georgia
10 Oklahoma State
10 LSU
23 Montana
23 Charleston Southern
23 North Florida
23 Bucknell
11 Purdue
11 Texas
11 Boise State
11 Temple
22 Lafayete
22 Texas Southern
22 New Mexico State
22 Coastal Carolina
12 Mississippi
12 Indiana
12 BYU
12 Tulsa
21 North Carolina Central
21 UAB
21 Georgia Southern*
21 North Dakota State
13 Texas A&M
13 Stanford
13 UCLA
13 Miami (FL)
20 South Dakota State
20 Cal-Irvine
20 Belmont
20 Albany
14 Connecticut
14 Buffalo
14 Illinois
14 Rhode Island
19 Eastern Washington
19 Northeastern
19 Central Michigan
19 William & Mary
15 Murray State 15 Green Bay
15 Old Dominion
15 Illinois State
18 Georgia State 18 UC Davis
18 Valparaiso
18 Wyoming
16 Stephen F. Austin
16 Wofford
16 Yale
16 Richmond
17 Louisiana Tech
17 Harvard
17 Iona
17 Pittsburgh

AVOIDING PLAYOFF WEEK: Ohio State, Iowa, St. John's, VCU. The line between those teams and the 9 seeds (Cincinnati, NC State, Davidson) is pretty clear-cut.

BUBBLES CREATED: 18, which is about average. Regular season champions Albany, Gonzaga, New Mexico State, North Florida, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Southern, Valparaiso, and Wofford each claimed their league's tournament autobid as well, creating eight spots for bubble teams.

The American, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mid-American, Missouri Valley, Pac-12, and SEC tournaments will all be won by teams that are safely in the field, creating an additional ten at-large bids. The Sun Belt is still up in the air. (Remember, with the larger field, UConn is now safe for an at-large bid.)

There is one more possible spot for a bubble team: if Georgia State beats Georgia Southern, they will knock Southern out of the field and create an opening for George Washington. GW would slot in as a 17 or 18 seed, and other teams would move down a slot to fill the opening at #21. I would move Irvine to play BYU, Eastern Washington to play Stanford, Valpo to face UConn, and put GW against Old Dominion.

LAST FOUR IN: Old Dominion, Illinois State, Pittsburgh, Richmond. There weren't a lot of major conference teams on the bubble this year; they were safely in or all the way out. This resulted in a lot of small-school matchups in the 15-18 seeds.

FIRST FOUR OUT: George Washington, Minnesota, St. Mary's, Vanderbilt.

OTHERS CONSIDERED: Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Arizona State, Tennessee, Memphis, Toledo.