Expand the field

Sam Owens/Courier & Press

[NOTE: This was posted three hours before the NCAA Division I transformation committee published its recommendation to create larger championship fields.]

When expanding the NCAA tournament to 64 teams was first discussed seriously in 1981, NCAA men’s basketball committee chair Dave Gavitt made plain that he was opposed to the proposal. “I am personally very much against expansion,” he said that year. “I’m prepared to speak against it. I’m prepared to vote against it. Whether I have the prevailing opinion, I don’t know.”

Gavitt did not have the prevailing opinion. Two years later when it appeared increasingly likely that expansion would be approved, he sought to make the best of the situation. “I’m not anti-64,” Gavitt said. “But I am greatly concerned about what it will do to the quality of in-season play. It scares the hell out of me.” Nevertheless, the NCAA men’s basketball committee approved the 64-team field by an 8-to-1 vote on December 3, 1983. Gavitt’s was the lone vote in opposition.

The field expanded to 65 in 2001, but basically the tournament retained its essential structure for a quiet quarter of a century. Then expansion reared its head once again in the 2009-10 season, at least topically. Retired head coach Bob Knight made headlines that December not only by questioning the “integrity” of a certain unnamed head coach recently hired at Kentucky but also by coming out against all this talk he and everyone else was suddenly hearing about a 96-team bracket.

On February 1, 2010, a post at the Sports By Brook site stated that the move to a 96-team field was a “done deal.” Though the reaction to this claim was fierce and overwhelmingly negative, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen proceeded to send this trial balloon aloft officially at that year’s Final Four in Indianapolis. Shaheen briefed a roomful of journalists on a proposal under discussion to expand the field to 96 teams.

This particular expansion proposal was so unpopular it was raked over the coals even in otherwise agreeable Canada: “The corrupt bureaucratic money-grubbers who run U.S. college sports are set to expand [the tournament] from 64 to 96 teams.” Three weeks later the NCAA announced the field would expand to 68 teams, not 96.

With expansion in the air once again in 2023, objections of the distinct yet often complementary Gavitt and money-grubber varieties are being raised anew. To these two hardy perennials we can add a third popular objection, one stating that any expansion of the field must surely favor middling teams from major conferences.

This third line of critique fairly brims with prima facie credibility since it is indeed major-conference commissioners who are pitching expansion in the first place. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey got the ball rolling last August with a call to take a “fresh look” at the NCAA tournament. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips followed that up in October by saying forthrightly: “I really would like us to expand.”

Strange as it seems, we may benefit from listening to Sankey and Phillips. While their motives appear suspect, they could be onto something in their own accidental way.

A larger bracket would benefit mid-majors
The first NCAA tournament in 1939 consisted of an eight-team bracket. If you’re a sinister major-conference commissioner who really wants to exclude mid-majors, the laudably symmetrical eight- or 16-team fields are still the perfect size. The last team not named “Gonzaga” from outside the top six conferences to earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed was Cincinnati in 2018. Prior to that you have to go back to Wichita State in 2014. The very top of the bracket is decidedly thin on mid-majors.

Once you get down to the Nos. 5 and 6 lines, however, things start to change. This is true even when we look only at at-large bids and even when we go ahead and proactively count soon-to-be Big 12 members Houston, BYU, UCF and the aforementioned Bearcats as major-conference programs with major-conference histories.

Mid-major at-larges cluster on the lower seed lines because major-conference programs dominate so consistently throughout the higher reaches of the metrics used by the selection committee. Over the last decade-plus, mid-majors have been about twice as populous in the KenPom rankings between Nos. 31 and 60 as they have been between Nos. 1 and 30.

Expand the field, that’s where the mid-majors are
Pre-tournament KenPom rankings 2011-22

                Major conference      Mid-major  
Nos. 1-30            83.3%              16.7%
Nos. 31-60           67.3%              32.7%

Based on 2023-24 conference memberships

If you want a greater share of mid-major at-larges in your bracket, holding the field at its current size is a curious choice. As of next season major-conference membership will have increased by 45 percent since 1985. Over the same span the tournament field has grown by six percent.

The more you expand the bracket beyond the current at-large cutoff, the more the field as a whole will tend to take on a mid-major flavor. There will be years that are exceptions to the rule, but they will be just that, exceptions. Don’t tell Sankey and Phillips.

A regular season that matters, more underdogs, a field that’s not watered down…we deserve it all
There’s no law that says expanding to 80 or 96 means we’re required to simply go 12 or 28 lines further down the at-large rankings. Why not cast a wider net?

For years mid-major conferences have been clamoring for their regular-season champions to receive bids. After all, major-conference regular-season champions already earn such invites no matter what happens to them in the conference tournaments (the occasional oddity like Washington 2012 notwithstanding). In the 2010 discussion Mike Krzyzewski, for one, specifically backed this idea.

Say we tweak my friend Ken’s clever thought and award a bid to any outright regular-season champion from a league that won a round of 64 game the previous year. Had this widget been in place last March, North Texas, Toledo, Northern Iowa, and Nicholls State would have all played for a national title despite losing in their conference tournaments. If we were expanding to 80 teams, we’d already be at 72 without having added a single major-conference program.

For the other eight teams we turn to at-large candidates. The NCAA helpfully named which four teams just missed out on being selected for the 2022 bracket. Beyond that we can add four more at-larges by using a purposefully unimaginative NET-SOR blend.

Eight more at-larges
NCAA actual first four out plus four more bubbly strivers

1. Dayton       NCAA first four out
2. Oklahoma     NCAA first four out   
3. Texas A&M    NCAA first four out  
4. SMU          NCAA first four out
5. Wake Forest  NET-SOR No. 48
6. Xavier       NET-SOR No. 52 
7. VCU          NET-SOR No. 53
8. BYU          NET-SOR No. 56

Wake, Xavier, VCU, and BYU are offered here as deliberately vanilla expansion choices. All four were mainstays at ESPN.com’s Bubble Watch. All were selected as part of The Athletic’s thought exercise on what form an expanded bracket might take.

These eight teams may not strike you as a particularly scintillating group. Of course they don’t. They didn’t get bids. Most at-larges that did get bids turned out to be uninteresting too. Teams like Notre Dame and Indiana were waved through with manifest diffidence anyway not because coffee table books will be written about them but because we don’t and never can know what will happen in win-or-go-home basketball.

Scintillation aside, extending an at-large cutoff 2.2 percent further into the body of D-I’s membership will not as a rule materially impact the strength of a field selected by an intrinsically idiosyncratic committee of VIPs. As an example, compare the the last eight at-larges on the actual 2022 seed list to our vanilla eight-team expansion group.

Guess which cohort was stronger, albeit microscopically so….

Expanding the 2022 field would have watered it up
Last eight NCAA tournament at-larges vs. eight expansion candidates

                             KenPom                    KenPom
Last at-larges   Seed list   AdjEM      Expansion      AdjEM  
Miami                38      +12.62     Dayton         +13.28
Davidson             40      +14.80     Oklahoma       +15.96   
Iowa State           41      +13.95     Texas A&M      +14.36  
Michigan             42      +15.65     SMU            +13.36
Wyoming              43      +13.10     Wake Forest    +14.93
Rutgers              44      +10.86     Xavier         +12.89
Indiana              45      +14.94     VCU            +11.87
Notre Dame           47      +13.63     BYU            +13.82

AVERAGE                      +13.69                    +13.81

AdjEMs pre-NCAA tournament and pre-NIT
Skips in seed list reflect auto bids

Even in an expanded field that didn’t happen, the weakest KenPom at-large by far would have been real-life No. 11 seed Rutgers. This isn’t to say the committee shouldn’t have given the Scarlet Knights a bid. It is to say at-large bubbles for both a 68- and, for example, an 80-team bracket do and would center on the same tranche of teams in the 30s, 40s, and 50s at KenPom.

Any at-large mosaic will of course be assembled by the committee after its own quixotic fashion. But whether the field’s 68 teams or a larger number in that general vicinity, the tiles will all come from more or less the same team-strength quarry.

Tuesday and Wednesday can go from sleepy to superb
The perfectly symmetrical NCAA bracket died on March 13, 2001, when Northwestern State defeated Winthrop 71-67 in Dayton. It was called the “play-in game that no one wanted.” Symmetry was sacrificed in favor of minting a 32nd automatic bid while keeping the number of at-large invites at 33. As of 2011 three more at-large slots were added. Until the field expands to 128, symmetry is gone. That toothpaste is out of the tube.

This bit of potted history is offered as a reminder that the current size of the field reflects no one’s ideal. Like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the number 68 is a dusty relic born of conflict, exhaustion, and a long and tense standoff. Yet today that number is reflexively and furiously defended to the hilt as if it were handed down on stone tablets by Naismith.

Since we’re never going back to the iconic 64 we should finally move forward from the accidental 68. An expanded bracket can give us more basketball involving higher seeds earlier in the week while offering weightier regular season and conference tournament incentives than just improving your seed a line or two. Stop shipping NEC or MEAC or any other champions to Dayton. Give all 32 automatic qualifiers a bye through to Thursday or Friday. Start bracketing at-large heavyweights across all four regions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the aforementioned scheme set forth by Mr. Pomeroy, only automatic qualifiers and the top 16 at-larges in an 80-team field would be shielded from potential elimination on Tuesday or Wednesday. Seeds as high as the No. 7 or even the No. 6 line would play in an all-at-large 32-team qualifying round. Tuesday and Wednesday could presage Saturday and Sunday: 16 games of estimable quality across two days.

Then again Jim Larranaga apparently thinks Ken’s being timid. The coach has proposed a 96-team bracket where only the 32 automatic qualifiers proceed directly to Thursday or Friday.

That would be wild. No fewer than 19 of the last 37 national champions have been at-large teams. Under the Larranaga plan, titans like Duke 2015, Villanova 2016, North Carolina 2017, Virginia 2019, and Baylor 2021 would all have been playing on Tuesday or Wednesday.

A Gavitt stance for 2023
I was courtside in Wells Fargo Arena at the East Regional last March when Saint Peter’s defeated Purdue in the Sweet 16.

It was Friday night in Philadelphia. With the exception of one section of besieged and bewildered fans attired in gold and black, the entire arena was on its feet and cheering at a deafening volume for the Jesuit school from Jersey City. Even North Carolina and UCLA supporters on hand for the impending nightcap were amplifying the pandemonium and, naturally, pulling for the upset. When the Peacocks prevailed 67-64 to become the first No. 15 seed in NCAA men’s history to reach the Elite Eight, Doug Edert ran straight for, coincidentally, me.

All of us could see at a glance that Edert was going to jump up on the press table. The Saint Peter’s fan section was directly behind me, and my mind instantly flashed back to Bill Raftery having his glasses inadvertently stomped on by Michigan’s Mo Wagner at the 2018 Final Four. I didn’t have glasses but I did have an ESPN-issued laptop that I was in the process of frantically closing and sweeping off the table as Edert went into his leap. He landed two spots to my left and raised his fists in triumph high above us working stiffs. I was engulfed by delirious Saint Peter’s players on one side and screaming fans on the other.

The reflex to preserve this tournament at all costs and to cast a wary eye on money-grubbing tinkerers is sound. This tournament is an absolute jewel.

Like Dave Gavitt 40 years ago, we have sufficient grounds to say one potential future scenario scares the hell out of us. But where Gavitt feared tournament expansion, we may be on firmer ground in 2023 to fear tournament eclipse. Preservation’s hardly synonymous with inaction.

The task at hand is preserving an event where a Saint Peter’s can happen because all of Division I is eligible for selection. The bedrock of the NCAA tournament is this principle of inclusion, not whether 64 or 68 or 80 teams then happen to be selected.

In 2010 when a 96-team bracket was shouted down, the idea was sponsored by an NCAA that still bestrode the college basketball world like a colossus and was committed to preserving automatic bids for mid-majors. Conversely expansion today is championed by a new class of ascendant hegemons, major conferences that have flourished even as the NCAA has faltered.

There is of course no particular reason to expect major conferences to adhere to an all-Division-I principle of inclusion indefinitely. They do so today out of habit and in the presence of the beloved American ritual that is March Madness. But habits evolve and new rituals emerge.

When major conferences elect not to trigger the apocalypse and instead raise an idea that could have happened already just on the merits, the wise preservationist course is to hear them out.