Busting Brackets

NCAA Basketball: The NCAA Tournament Expansion Plan That Everyone Will Love

Biden Hosts NCAA Champion LSU Tigers And Connecticut Huskies At White House
Biden Hosts NCAA Champion LSU Tigers And Connecticut Huskies At White House / Chip Somodevilla/GettyImages

It seems inevitable now, that the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will soon feature more than sixty-eight teams. The ninety-six team proposal that began to make the rounds three years ago appears to be out of the equation, with a handful of smaller expansion options still on the table. But every proposal appears to be the same, a simple addition to the number of at-large bids, which would disproportionately benefit the five (no longer six since the PAC-12 is now the PAC-2) power conferences.

These leagues have been throwing their weight around to shape the college sports landscape throughout the entirety of the twenty-first century. As they levy significant changes to the college football playoffs and conference structure, they have yet to touch the basketball tournament. Perhaps they just haven't gotten around to it or perhaps it's the one piece of the college sports landscape where they realize that they can't afford to leave behind the smaller schools. Although they'll never admit it.

Sure, an all-power conference tournament would still generate good money and decent tv ratings, but it would never be able to generate the same level of buzz. The massive upsets are what truly begin to draw in the casual basketball fans and even gain the attention of those who don't care for sports. In the last two years, St. Peter's became national darlings and everyone learned where Fairleigh Dickinson is. Even the architects of smaller upsets, like Arkansas Little Rock and North Texas are still remembered a decade later.

The NCAA Tournament is built on two things, great champions and memorable underdogs. Without Valparaiso and Butler, Loyola Chicago and VCU, UMBC and FGCU, the giant pile of money from CBS and Turner will quickly start to shrink. Everyone remembers Florida Atlantic's run to the Final Four but can you still name the other #8 seed who made the Sweet Sixteen last year? (It was Arkansas upsetting top seed Kansas, it happened eleven and a half months ago and I still had to Google it.) The twenty-seven other leagues should push for a change that spreads the newfound cash and bids to everyone.

The NCAA is at massive crossroads, one that threatens to tear the college landscape in two. But this is a nation of great compromises, as far back as the Connecticut Compromise in 1787, where the big states got the congressional body they wanted (US House of Representatives) and small states got what they wanted (US Senate). This proposal is similar way to satisfy everyone in college basketball, fans included.

The proposal is an addition of eight teams, from sixty-eight to seventy-six. Four at-large bids will be added to entice the power conferences, and after a field of seventy-two is determined, the final four spots will go to the best remaining regular season conference champions.

Under this model, the opening round would consist of six games on Tuesday and four on Wednesday (makes much more logistical sense than an even split). Of those ten games, four would consist of the lowest rated teams playing for #16 seeds, two will continue to be the last at-large teams (those added in expansion) facing off and the other four will pit the current last four at-large teams against the four regular season champions added at the end.

Additionally, since the selection committee continues to not rectify the massive mistake of eliminating last twelve games as a selection metric (especially given massive roster movement, what happens in November just doesn't tell you as much), no team should allowed be to make the NCAA Tournament if they finish under .500 in conference play, unless they win enough conference tournament games to reach the mark before losing in that tournament.

This would also create the unintended consequence of driving the power conferences to switch to nineteen game seasons, to make the gap easier to close for an 8-9 team, as opposed to 8-10. By extension, we'd probably get some very poor neutral site ideas from the Big Ten to balance the schedule. I can already hear Mike Tirico coming back from commercial during an NFL playoff game:

"And this Tuesday afternoon on Peacock, in front of a few thousand on tv and way less in the stands, Ace Baldwin and Ace Bailey face off as Penn State takes on Rutgers from the 02 Arena in London."

Last part of this plan is a victory for the fans. Watching games in the homogeneous NBA and NHL arenas that are typically used for March Madness are nothing like being in the sport's grandest home environments. The NCAA would likely try to still squeeze 20,000 people out of $150 a pop to see these games in person, but they won't carry the same appeal. Don't be fooled by the great First Four crowds, the people of Dayton, Ohio would show up to UD Arena to see the Oakwood second grade All-Stars face their eight year old counterparts at Chaminade Julienne. You're not getting the same response in the opposite corner of the state for a Tuesday at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

The games should be played at a rotation of the twenty or so best arena in college basketball, like Cameron Indoor Stadium, Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Viejas Arena and so on. The one great thing about the 2021 NCAA Tournament in the bubble was that games were played at Assembly Hall and Hinkle Fieldhouse.

What would these games look like this year? In determining the matchups, I went off of Joe Lunardi's March 5th bracketology for the bubble teams and then assumed that in line with a standard year, about half of the best regular season champions would also win their conference tournament. For sake of this exercise, I randomly selected Indiana St, McNeese St, Grand Canyon, College of Charleston and Samford as getting auto bids. Additionally, for sake of current bubble continuity, I assumed that none of Dayton, FAU or UNLV won their conference tournament and altered their league's bid count. And the #16 seed games won't be this good, a pair of barely .500 teams who finished in sixth place will get hot for three days and win their conference.

**All hypothetical lines come from Haslametrics All-Play Estimates. All times EST.

Tuesday: UD Arena - Dayton (TNT)

4:00 - 11 seed: Virginia vs Richmond (Pick)
Winner plays 6 Wisconsin Thur (Omaha)

6:30 - 16 seed: Norfolk St vs Central Conneticut St. (Pick)
Winner plays 1 Purdue Fri (Indianapolis)

9:00 - 11 seed: Seton Hall (-1.5) vs Appalachian State
Winner plays 6 South Carolina Thur (Pittsburgh)

Tuesday: The Pit - Albuquerque (TruTV)

6:00 - 12 seed: Wake Forest (-6.5) vs South Florida
Winner plays 5 Auburn Fri (Spokane)

8:30 - 16 seed: Little Rock (-8.5) vs Grambling
Winner plays 1 Arizona Thur (Salt Lake City)

11:00 - 12 seed: Utah (-1.5) vs Providence
Winner plays 5 BYU Thur (Salt Lake City)

Wednesday: Palestra - Philadelphia (TruTV)

6:00 - 12 seed: St. John's (-3.5) vs Iowa
Winner plays 5 Clemson Fri (Brooklyn)

8:30 - 16 seed: Stetson vs Quinnipiac (-1.5)
Winner plays 1 UConn Fri (Brooklyn)

Wednesday: Rupp Arena - Lexington (TNT)

6:45 - 16 seed: South Dakota St vs Eastern Washington (Pick)
Winner plays 1 Houston Fri (Memphis)

9:15 - 11 seed: New Mexico (-3.5) vs Princeton
Winner plays 6 Florida Fri (Memphis)

If you're a big enough college basketball fan to still be reading this, you absolutely would be watching on both of these days. Plenty of good matchups, New Mexico against Princeton would be absolutely thrilling television and there's even a late night game in a Mountain West gym, which has tended to lead to best moments of this season.

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This proposal is an absolute win for everyone, save for the purists who are yelling to go back to sixty-four teams. The schools get more money, the television partners get to sell more advertising slots, the fans get more games in legendary locations, the major conferences get more at-large teams in, the smaller conferences get the best representation they've ever had, the regular season title in the better mid-majors (Ivy, Missouri Valley, CAA etc.) now takes on significant importance, one hundred more players get to realize their dreams, the Tournament product won't be saturated by adding eight teams and the unassaiable first weekend schedule will remain untouched.