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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

How to do NCAA Tournament Expansion Right

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey recently suggested the NCAA take a "fresh look" at the selection process. His comments indicate two things. First, the big boys would be interested in expanding the tournament field. In addition, he spoke about eliminating the automatic qualifiers, which chafes fans who love the idea that at the beginning of March, every eligible team (outside a few Ivy League outliers) has a clear, if not necessarily realistic, path to winning the National Championship.

Greg Sankey is hinting at NCAA Tourney expansion
 Photo by Andy Lyons | Getty Images

I would join the chorus of individuals that does not want the automatic qualifiers to go away. While Sankey based his argument on First Four to Final Four teams like 2011 VCU, 2018 Syracuse, and 2021 UCLA, the removal of automatic qualifiers would likely eliminate every automatic bid 13-seed or worse, which means the even-more-recent 2022 St. Peter's story never would've happened.

More often than not in the constant "tradition vs money" battle, money wins out, but I'd like to explore an option that would allow for more money to be made (and likely consolidated by the major conferences) while also preserving the tradition that gives every team a path to the title. Here is what I would propose:

Step 1: Add First Four sites

Not only is expansion inevitable, if done right it could actually make the NCAA Tournament better. The first step is expanding to more Tuesday and Wednesday sites. Dayton has been a good pick because it didn't host regularly, is in close proximity to another major city, and has a rabid basketball fanbase that will come for the entertainment, not just for the hometown team.

My first addition would be Omaha. They've only hosted once historically (though recently, in 2018), draw a passionate crowd with regularity, and don't have pro sports options to compete with. Omaha is also located toward the western side of the country which will make it a better geographic fit than cramming everything east of the Mississippi.

We shouldn't need a pandemic to put the Tourney at Assembly Hall

Photo by Matt Begala | Indiana Athletics

Next up, you have to appease the big boys. While Knoxville used to host somewhat regularly (three times in the 1990s) they haven't had NCAA games at Thompson-Boling since 1999. This would provide guaranteed revenue to an SEC school and is again a large enough arena that will draw fans. Finally, we need a Big 10 school, and I would propose Indiana's Assembly Hall. Outside of the 2021 all-Indiana bubble, they haven't hosted since 1981 but have dedicated basketball fans and like Dayton, close proximity to a larger city. So let's go with Creighton, Tennessee, and Indiana joining Dayton as perennial First Four sites. You can even keep the "First Four" moniker because those arenas will be the First Four hosts every year.

Step 2: Every 15/16 has to play their way in

Rather than doing away with the 15s and 16s completely, which would rob fans of stories like St. Peter's, UMBC, and Dunk City that are just as compelling as the First Four to Final Four stories, let's send them all to First Four sites. This would accomplish a number of things. It would retain the "everyone has a chance" storyline, preserve the "easier" path for 1/2 seeds, and improve the 64-team field come Thursday.

By putting the "worst" teams into these games, it would still give everyone the theoretical chance at the NCAA Title. After all, if the first team to go from 16-seed to Sweet 16 is someone like post-automatic bid Syracuse (and you know it would be them), it won't quite have the same magic as we felt when UMBC pulled the Virginia upset. Retaining the automatic bids, even if they are diluted in the course, allows the NCAA Tournament to keep the magical feel that makes it so unique among American playoffs. 

Moments like UMBC over UVA are only possible with autobids intact

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff | Daily Progress

In addition, if we were to completely eliminate automatic bids, the opponent quality seen in opening games by the 1 and 2 seeds would be far more difficult to overcome. While upsets are fun, both the monied interests and the fans want to see the big boys in the second and third weekends. Keeping the weakest teams in the 15/16 seeds spots would help deliver that. After all, fans want the top teams to advance and the harder you make their path the less likely that is to continue.

That said, in 1985, the NCAA went to the 64 team seeded format. From 1985 through 2010, just 4 teams seeded 15 or worse won a game. There was one team added, to the 65-team field in 2001, but the results didn't change much. Then, in 2011, they expanded the field to 68. Since that expansion, 7 teams seeded 15 or worse have won a combined 11 games. By knocking out two of the worst 16-seeds in the First Four, the remaining 16s are stronger. Teams that would've been on the 14 or 15 lines years ago are now 15s or 16s, and their results have improved accordingly. Keeping the 15s and 16s would strengthen that pool and make the 1/2 seed first round games that much more compelling.

Step 3: Add 12 at-large teams

This is where people wince. But while it's easy to say "why add bad NIT caliber teams?" the question should be "are there more VCU/Syracuse/UCLA teams out there?" Might 2018 Penn State or 2019 Texas, both of whom finished top-25 at kenpom after winning the NIT, had a similar NCAA run in them?

There are a few reasons to justify adding these teams. The obvious first one is money. More inventory, particularly if it means adding high-major teams on Tuesday and Wednesday (always the most watched games) means more money. The vast preponderance of these bids will also go to high major teams. If the impetus is from the top six leagues, they account for the majority of where those newly awarded bids would go. Looking at the top three NIT seeds from the past three tournaments, 25/36 (69.4%) teams came from the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. More inventory, more money, and a larger percentage going to the programs that are driving the bus.

More inventory like Notre Dame/Rutgers Double OT please
 Photo by Jeff Dean | AP

However, the real benefit is turning Tuesday and Wednesday into legitimate NCAA Tournament dates rather than appetizers for the diehards. There would be a far bigger audience for a slate that featured the following at the First Four sites, using 2022 as an example:

  • Indiana vs Florida
  • Notre Dame vs St. Louis
  • Rutgers vs VCU
  • Wyoming vs Mississippi State
  • Dayton vs Xavier
  • Texas A&M vs North Texas
  • SMU vs Wake Forest
  • Oklahoma vs BYU

Those are games with big brands that will attract eyes regardless of fan allegiance. More games allows for better chances at attractive rivalry matchups or storylines, whether it's Dayton/Xavier in a true rivalry, Texas A&M/North Texas in an in-state tilt, or Oklahoma/BYU in the future and soon to be past Big 12. Mixing those with the 15/16 seeds games will provide a legitimate slate that will have broader interest. Tuesday and Wednesday won't be token games everyone can write off, they will be the legitimate start of the NCAA Tournament, spanning four networks with big brands playing consistently through both evening sessions.

Step 4: The makeup of the 64

So with this expansion, what will we be left with come the Thursday/Friday sessions? This will be the makeup of the remaining field:

  • 16 Automatic bids opening tourney play
  • 32 At-large bids opening tourney play
  • 8 Automatic 15/16 seed play-in bids
  • 8 At-large play-in bids

Without question, the quality at this point will be better. The 1 and 2 seeds will face the best remaining 15 and 16 seeds, many of which in the past would've been 13 or 14 seeds. In turn, the 11-14 lines will be made up of the better mid-major champs and at-large play-in winners. In general, everyone in this range will be a line or two lower than they would've been in the past, meaning better teams filling out those lines. And the top-10 or so lines will be unchanged, the best teams in the country getting in on merit as they always have.

If they really wanted to tamp down on small conference inclusion, they could include 8 more automatic qualifiers in the "play-in" to the 14 line as well. Or they could have First Four mini-tournaments, where the bottom 16 teams are broken into 4 pods and have to win games on Tuesday and Wednesday to advance to the 16-lines in the round of 64, while the 8 teams above them would play-in to the 15-seed games. This would take the bottom 24 automatic bids and pare them down to 8 participants in the main 64-team bracket. Would it be the same? Obviously not, but it would still give a chance to those teams and provide great storyline opportunity while also improving the overall quality of play once Thursday and Friday roll around.

The End Result

This tournament setup would be the best of both worlds. For the high-major conferences, they get more bids and by eliminating 8 autobids before Thursday, increase their odds of having their own teams advance. By increasing the First Four inventory, there is a tangibly higher value to the opening days of the tournament, which will hinge primarily on the big brands drawing eyeballs (as they always have).

What if the Tournament could be bigger AND better?
 Photo by Tom Pennington | Getty Images

For the small schools, they still have a chance to play in the Big Dance and eight coaches of 15/16 seeds will be guaranteed to go home claiming an NCAA Tournament win. In addition, by thinning the herd at the First Four sites the teams that do make it to the Round of 64 should be in better position to pull off an upset.

Basketball junkies also benefit because they get two days of legitimate content, not just a couple games per night that most people view as throwaways. Casual fans benefit because they get to see more big brands on the opening nights and get to tune in to the national brands to start matters. The NCAA as a whole benefits because more inventory means more advertising and more profit. Whether they could renegotiate as a result (the CBS/Turner deal that runs to 2032 is woefully small compared to the product value) remains to be seen but it would certainly enhance their negotiating ability when the next contract talks come up.