Recent talk of potentially expanding the NCAA tournament bracket has produced at least three instances of salutary clarification. First, it is abundantly clear that, notwithstanding a few noteworthy exceptions, the overwhelming majority of people who talk and tweet and write about college basketball don’t want the field to expand. Second, it is increasingly apparent that the NCAA itself has little or no interest in a larger bracket.
Finally, discussing the shape of the tournament field has brought to the surface foundational assumptions on how we should go about doing men’s Division I college basketball as a whole. Not merely the postseason, mind you, but the whole ball of wax, from November through the first Monday in April.
In particular, the belief that putting more teams into the bracket would by definition cheapen the regular season appears to have attained the status of conventional wisdom. In this line of thinking “there are real concerns about devaluing the regular season, and frankly, there aren’t many more deserving teams.”
Whenever the powers that be talk gravely about devaluing the regular season, that sound you hear is 78 percent of D-I bursting into laughter. For teams in 26 of our 32 leagues, the regular season tends to be an afterthought while the conference tournament is most often everything. Ask last year’s outright champions of Conference USA and the Missouri Valley about “devaluing the regular season.”
Perhaps it’s the status quo that has long devalued the regular season, not only for mid-majors but also for major-conference programs. One way to address this issue via the postseason would be to expand the field to 80 teams. Award bids to a select number of outright regular-season champions and give major-conference at-larges more to play for between November and March than just a seed.
Nothing would value the regular season more tangibly than enabling true ticket-punched court storms to occur in the regular season. We could make provision for such celebrations in mid-major conferences that have earned the privilege by winning a round of 64 game the previous year. These outright regular-season champions could then improve their NCAA bracket positions still further by winning their conference tournaments and earning byes through to the round of 64.
The same byes would also raise the stakes of the regular season significantly for major-conference teams. Being bracketed one game closer to a national title is a far more attractive incentive than merely having your seed bumped up a line. The cutoff between the top 16 at-larges going straight through to the round of 64 and those that don’t would become a second bubble in its own right.
The bubble is a flat circle
A statement like “frankly, there aren’t many more deserving teams” is perhaps doing two teachably inadvertent things at once. It assumes any expansion will be achieved solely by reaching further down the at-large rankings. It also misconstrues the horizontal nature of the bubble.
For example the NCAA’s ill-fated 2010 trial balloon favoring a 96-team field doubtless met its fate due to the number 96 alone. All identically-sized brackets aren’t created equal, however, and what few recall about this episode are the details in the NCAA’s plan. This particular 96-team proposal was indeed the bracketing equivalent of a blunt instrument. The additional teams really did come entirely from reaching further down the at-large rankings.
A better method, one more representative of the entirety of the rest of the field, would be to blend additional at-large selections with a limited number of qualifying regular-season champions. These are deserving teams in the best sense of the term.
Even the much-maligned at-large hopefuls on the far side of the 68-team cut line may turn out to be more meritorious than commonly supposed. For starters it’s exceedingly probable that as a group such teams will be as good at basketball as a like number of the last at-larges in the field. There will also be more mid-majors in such a gathering than you might imagine. Whenever we do expand the field by a feasible increment, we’re likely to find there were deserving teams on the far side of 68 all along.
The First Four is the price we pay for 68
On at least one point there’s common ground between a good many supporters of the 68-team field on the one hand and the tiny claque of expansion advocates on the other. All of the above can agree the First Four is a poor front porch for an otherwise outstanding tournament.
This point of consensus does however paint defenders of the status quo into an odd corner polemically. The First Four is weak, they say. Therefore the thing to do is…leave everything exactly the way it is. Don’t you dare touch one hair on the head of this dispiriting and listless First Four. If you do all hope is lost.
A more promising approach would seem to be to try to make Tuesday and Wednesday as good as the first weekend.
Expand the field by 12 teams. Bracket a 16-game wild card round for Tuesday and Wednesday. Teams seeded as high as the No. 7 or even No. 6 line will be playing for their lives against opponents seeded no lower than No. 12. On paper these will be good postseason games as opposed to play-in contests between the last at-larges in the field. For the first time the tournament will truly start on Tuesday.
The NCAA tournament has expanded 15 times to everyone’s satisfaction, but a 16th will be prohibitively difficult and doomed to failure
Reports have identified a series of administrative hurdles that must be navigated before any expansion can take place. It is for example noted accurately that expanding the tournament will take a good deal of “planning and thousands of hours of coordination.” Such efforts will involve “very important people.”
Walter Byers must have been the John Wooden of planning and coordination.
Makes me sick thinking about NCAA ruining most sacred event in sports. Going from 8 to 16 teams, then 22, then 24, 25, 23, 24 again, 23 again, 25 again, 24 again, 25 again, 23 again, 22 again, 23 again, 25 again, 32, 40, 48, 52, 53, 64, 65, and now 68 was PERFECT— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) October 20, 2022
Don't touch it! https://t.co/LQ7mXjdYxG
Another obstacle looming in expansion’s path is reportedly the tournament’s contract with CBS and Turner. Indeed it is said the NCAA “is locked into” its media rights deal.
The NCAA signed the deal in 2010, and then in 2016 elected to renegotiate the contract to 2032. Being “locked into” an existing deal seven years ago didn’t prevent a conversation from taking place.
With their actions the NCAA and CBS/Turner indicated that what was locked in was a modus vivendi, one that ideally will benefit all parties. While the next contract seems like a million years away, barring unforeseen events it will be negotiated on the watch of the new NCAA president.
CBS has had March Madness since 1982. To keep it CBS/Turner will have to win what projects to be a savage bidding war. For all they know they’ll be up against Amazon and Apple and their ilk in addition to the usual legacy players.
Suppose one day the NCAA president requests a cordial nothing’s-been-decided chat just to put expansion on a white board and see what it would entail. Does CBS/Turner really parachute in battalions of lawyers wielding a late-stage contract to preemptively alienate a critical decision maker just so truTV can hold two March weekdays for “The Carbonaro Effect”? Or do they join a conversation? Could be worth a meeting between very important people.
One final puppy hurdle that’s been raised is the need to preserve the one-page bracket. This requirement’s been flagged as “actually pretty important.” Absolutely it’s important. It’s the NCAA tournament bracket. Happily a species that can do nuclear fusion will also be able to print a larger bracket on one page.
Inertia and tail risk
It would appear the NCAA is standing pat at 68. Defaulting to inertia is their prerogative, their nature, and, amid plainly stated major-conference sentiments to the contrary, their risk to own going forward. The true degree of risk is of course known only by the future. This could in all probability work out fine.
We do know the worst-case scenario, a basketball version of the schism that walled the NCAA off from power football 40 years ago, is dire. One course of action to mediate this tail risk in the near term, improving Tuesday and Wednesday dramatically by expanding the field modestly, is both simple and entirely on-trend historically.
The NCAA apparently says no. Well, bonne chance.
In that case holding at 68 will age best if pitched cleanly and pragmatically as “It’s an amazing tournament, we’re good for now, thanks.” The decision’s done no favors if cast as doctrine, portrayed as necessary due to administrative challenges surmounted daily in countless corporate settings, defended with suspect assumptions on the strength of the at-large field, or justified as somehow valuing a regular season that is currently undervalued. Just say you’re good.
It’s an amazing tournament. Long may it thrive.