Millions of basketball fans are anxiously waiting for Selection Sunday. The anticipation is palpable and the possibilities endless.
Few things are more intoxicating than the smell of an empty tournament bracket still warm from the office printer. It’s crisp, clean, rich with opportunity, and still void of the inevitable red X’s that will, hopefully, be outnumbered by bright yellow highlighter marks. Strictly engaging with the NCAA Tournament bracket digitally is a lot like online dating. There’s nothing to touch and less to feel; it’s inherently unromantic and less fulfilling than a relationship on paper. That’s why I print a bracket.
Every year, everyone hopes their one-in-a-billion (actually, the odds are one-in-9.2-quintillion) bracket goes unbusted. Silly as it seems, there was that one year when I picked the first 15 games right on the tournament’s first day and thought it just might happen. It didn’t, and won’t…but there’s always a chance!
A vital part of picking that perfect bracket is finding that year’s Cinderella team. You have to take a risk to hit those odds after all, and picking this year’s version of George Mason from 2006 could be your ticket to the office pool jackpot. But as you watch the team names scroll on Selection Sunday, there’s an inevitable feeling of blah surrounding the mediocre power conference squads landing 9-, 10-, and 11-seeds, while outstanding mid-majors are left out, again.
The Lipscomb Bisons shouldn’t lose their Big Dance ticket to Liberty for losing a heartbreaker as the top seed in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament last weekend. Lipscomb was a consensus top-12 team among mid-majors all season, and now they’re almost certainly eliminated from tournament contention.
We should all want to live in a world with room for two fantastic teams from the Atlantic Sun, and it isn’t necessarily at the expense of an Oklahoma or Iowa. So how do we right this wrong? Expand the field, significantly.
Who wouldn’t want another full week of brackets and day games? Sure, the employers who suffer the brunt of the reported $6.3 billion lost during the first week of March Madness aren’t thrilled, but they’re distracted by the Dance, too. More March Madness is what we want. It’s what we need, and it’s what the NCAA needs.
More Good Mid-majors is a Good Thing
Average teams in the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12) are typically better than most mid- and low-major squads. That’s just a fact. But if the NCAA Tournament has taught us anything over the years, the very best mid-majors are often better than the dregs of the big conferences.
While there are countless examples of opening weekend upsets, the most obvious place is the 12-over-5-seed matchups. Even though the 2018 tournament was the third time in 19 years without such an upset, 12-seeds are 28-48 in the first round this century, a winning percentage of .368.
There are plenty of theories why 12-seeds constantly upset 5-seeds, but the most obvious is that the best mid-majors typically aren’t seeded much higher than 12. The 5-to-11 range, on the other hand, is often populated by the mediocre, large conference teams. That means they’ll often be matched up opposite the best mid-majors: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Central Florida, and Seton Hall, among others.
Keep in mind too that beginning with the 5-seed on down, favorites are no longer given what the NCAA calls “natural geographic-area protection” and are often traveling long distances from home to face their opponents. Any geographical advantage is gone, and the gap between the two teams narrows further still.
Right now there are 32 automatic bids based on conference tournament results. The other 36 at-large bids can go to any team in theory, but the huge majority are comprised of non-champion, Power 5 teams. Then a handful of at-larges are typically handed to the Big East, Atlantic 10, and American Athletic Conference (AAC).
Over the last few years, there has rarely been more than a single at-large tournament team outside those eight conferences. Think about that. If you’re one of the 250 NCAA men’s basketball teams residing outside the eight top conferences, your only path to March Madness is to win your conference tournament or hope you’re the one team across the entire nation the committee decides is worth inclusion as an at-large berth. That’s it.
In 2017, Saint Mary’s was a 7-seed and won their first game. In 2018, 7-seed Nevada upset 2-seed Cincinnati in the second round, only to lose by one in the Sweet 16. In other words, the best mid-major programs are, in fact, good teams. And we could use more of that in March. Instead, fans are stuck lamenting as some of the NCAA’s greatest scorers like Campbell’s Chris Clemons, South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, and Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman all won their conference but were upset in the tournament and will likely watch March Madness from home.
While there needs to be a Goliath for David to slay, doesn’t the frequency of these results suggest we’re erring a bit too much on the side of including mediocre, power schools?
And let’s be honest: it’s not like we’re going to convince anyone to take Texas and USC out of the tournament ($$). That’s why the field needs to be expanded. The power teams will still be included, but so will the Lipscombs of the world. Everyone wins.
Since the tournament was expanded from 64 to 68 teams in 2011, at least one First Four play-in winner won a tournament game each year. That includes an at-large LaSalle squad in 2013 that advanced to the Sweet 16 as a 13-seed, and the aforementioned VCU at-large team that went all the way to the Final Four in 2011.
And we haven’t even mentioned Kent State’s run to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed in 2002, or Butler making a second-straight national title game as an 8-seed in 2011. Or what about 9-seed Wichita State’s Final Four run in 2013, or Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago just last year? That’s five memorable Final Four runs from no-name, low-majors in barely a decade. If a mid-major gets hot, they can beat almost anybody. Who doesn’t want more of that?
The Numbers and the Bracket
Doubling the current field of 68 would be messy and altogether too much. Instead, we’ll add an even 32 teams to the first-round field of 64, bringing us to a total of 96 teams, split into 24 in each quadrant of the bracket.
Currently, only 19.3 percent of all Division-I programs make the NCAA Tournament. When the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there were only 282 member schools. That means 22.7 percent of schools made the tourney. To keep that pace, the tournament should already have expanded to 80 teams, halfway to the 96 proposed here.
If 96 of the 351 D-I teams are included, we’re up to 27.3 percent of programs making the tournament. That’s not far out of line with other NCAA athletics programs when it comes to making the postseason, and still a far cry from, say, the NBA and NHL (53.3 percent from each league make the playoffs), NFL (37.5 percent), or even the MLB (33.3 percent). This is far from “everyone gets a trophy” territory.
When it comes to the bracket, a 96-team field allows for an extra regional round a week prior to the current tournament. Regular season champions from each conference would receive an automatic bid, as would the conference tournament champions. That makes the regular season even more valuable and makes a real opportunity for two teams from small conferences to get into the Dance. There could even be a bonus for teams that so thoroughly dominate their conference by winning both the regular season and tourney titles that they receive a top-8 seed and an automatic first-round bye.
The first couple of days of the tournament would allow for byes to the 1- through 8-seeds, while the 9-seeds takes on 24-seeds, 10 plays 23, and so on. Then, 1-seeds takes on the winner of the 16/17 matchups, while the 8-seeds face the winner of the 9/24 games and so on.
The 24-seeds are likely to be the automatic bids from conferences such as the Northeast, which is 0-28 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, or the 1-21 Big South. But at least those teams have a chance to win now instead of being fodder for the 1-seeds. It’s the middle of the first round of the regional that will be most intriguing, with the best from the Ohio Valley, Atlantic Sun, and Mid-American conferences featured in early-round matchups. And besides, who doesn’t want more day basketball?
What are we waiting for?
What could possibly be standing in the way of an expanded tournament? Tradition, for starters. And while that’s nice and nostalgic, so is a madder March Madness. The NCAA shouldn’t deprive us from even more of a great thing, which is exactly what an extra round of games would give us.
Secondly, there would surely be some consideration given to any additional classes missed by student-athletes, although that should be mitigated somewhat by a reduction in the regular season schedule. We’re talking an extra two or three missed days tops, but it will no doubt factor into the NCAA’s decision.
The other reason? Some power conference teams may not want to increase the chance they’re the latest version of the top-seeded Virginia team that was shocked by 16-seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) last year.
Unquestionably the NCAA will make more money in this new setup. There’s really no downside for the mothership. Fan appetite won’t wane with an extra round of games. The anticipation for Selection Sunday will still exist from a seeding perspective, and there will always be another layer of teams on the bubble.
The upside is obvious: more worthy mid-majors, plus more big-money, power conference teams. Ultimately, that means more Davids and more Goliaths.
We deserve this. We need this. The best teams in the country deserve to play on the sport’s biggest stage, and the only way to ensure the best of the best are on the court is to expand the field. The cream will still rise to the top, of course, and the new tournament format will ensure they’re facing the best teams in the country on the road to their One Shining Moment.