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How to Expand the NCAA Tournament (And Not Ruin It)

So I have come up with an idea that I think can expand the NCAA Tournament (in a way that essentially brings the NIT into the NCAA Tournament fold) without destroying the 64-team format that we love so much. This format both expands the field, and does not lessen the opportunities, nor make the path more difficult, for the at-larges already in the field (except for maybe the very last team in). It does not take away opportunities from teams that would have been in the NIT, including teams that get an automatic bid by winning their regular season league titles (with the exception of the team that would have gotten the very last NIT at-large bid). And it does not take away the opportunities for all automatic-bid winners to compete (although admittedly it does water the experience down a bit for some). Are there problems with it? Sure. The biggest problems would be logistical ones, and it would require leagues to rethink how they schedule their league tournaments a little bit. I am sure there are other problems that I didn’t even think of. But overall I think it does what the NCAA obviously wants to do (expand the tournament), adds depth/meaning/interest to what would have been NIT games, expands opportunities for Power 6s and mid-majors, and more-or-less retains the 64-team model bracket at the end of the day.

So here is what I am thinking. And please stick with me to the end.

· Expand the tournament to 99 teams.

o Just stick with me.

· Move selection Sunday to Saturday night.

o We are going to need an extra day to do this realistically. And I think Saturday night makes sense here! Think of the selection show parties we could have!

· An initial 64 team bracket will be produced. A total of 59 teams will be put directly into the regular 64 team bracket.

o The 59 teams that make it automatically into the 64 team bracket will include the top 23 out of 31 automatic bid winners who win their conference tournament, and the top 36 at-large winners.

o The bracket will be seeded like normal. Four regions with 16 teams each, seeded 1-16. There will be five open placeholder spots. Those placeholders will be the last 16-seed (who would play the #1 overall seed) and the last four spots that fall into the bracket organically for at-large spots.

o The 64-team tournament would be played out as normal, starting the Thursday after selection Saturday.

Follow so far? So basically, what I am saying is you have a normal 64 team bracket, with five spots still left TBD. How do we fill those five spots? Here’s how.

· There would be 40 remaining teams (to make 99) that would play-off for those last five spots. These teams would be split into five groups of eight, and sent to five different locations throughout the country. These could be standalone locations or places that will also host 1st and 2nd round games. They could also be hosted by the top seed at each site. They will play on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in five separate eight team tournaments for the final spots in the 64-team bracket.

o Bracket #1 would feature the bottom eight automatic bid winners as determined by the committee. This would include the six teams that would be seeded 16th , plus two that would be 15th, in the current format.

o They would play a tournament on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with the winner moving on to get the last 16-seed in the big bracket and play the #1 overall seed.

o Brackets 2, 3, 4 and 5 would, essentially, feature the teams that currently play in the NIT. The way the math works out, the team that is the very last team into the NCAAs in the current format would move into this field, and join 31 of the 32 teams that would currently play in the NIT. The very last team with an at-large NIT bid in the current system would be left out.

o The winner of these four tournaments would be placed into the field at the spot that the last four at-larges would be. Similar to how the first four games are done currently.

o If you haven’t already figured it out, this means that regular season conference champs that do not make the NCAA Tournament with their automatic bid would be automatically included in this. Just like the NIT currently is. I considered giving the regular season winners the bid into the 64 team field with tournament winners playing in this. While that does make sense on many levels, as it really is more of an accomplishment to win the regular season, I don’t think it works. The teams that win the regular season would have little motivation to win their tournament title in this system and their winning it would only cost their league a bid. I think it would be manipulated and wouldn't work.

· There would have to be some schedule fenagling to allow the winners of these four brackets to play on Friday in the big dance instead of Thursday. This could be the single biggest issue with this format in my estimation.

So, in essence what I have done here is I have turned the NIT into a play-in tournament for the NCAA. The NCAA already owns the NIT. And it is.......fine. But this way you are basically playing the same games but with much more at stake, with a larger audience, and with (presumably) a bigger TV payday for the NCAA. Some more of my reasoning below.

· My reasoning for pulling the bottom eight automatic bid winners into this is by doing that, you keep essentially the same “cutoff” as you had before as far as at-larges that make it to the 64-team dance directly. In fact, it is arguably better because now three teams that would have had to play in the first four are directly into the regular bracket. This keeps the big schools happy. I think fewer at-larges into the 64-team bracket would be a non-starter.

· Big schools are even happier because now the mediocre P6 teams can say they made the tournament, and it is even easier for them to get into at least the first round. Alumni bases and donors would, presumably, get more fired up about this play-in tournament than the NIT. Last year, for example, the field would have included the likes of Florida (19-13), Mississippi State (18-15), Oklahoma (18-15), Oregon (19-14), Vanderbilt (17-16), Virginia (19-13) and Washington State (19-14). This format makes it easier to both make the 64-team field, and get into meaningful postseason of some kind.

· It is good for mid-majors too, as it would make the regular season titles substantially more meaningful. Last year the likes of Long Beach State, North Texas, Towson, Cleveland State, Princeton, Iona, Toledo, UNI, Nicholls, Alcorn State and Texas State would have been rewarded for their regular season exploits with a second chance at the dance. Not to mention at-larges to Belmont, BYU, Dayton, Missouri State, Saint Louis, Santa Clara, SMU, St. Bonaventure, Utah State and VCU. Something tells me, though, that some of those at-larges would have dried up in this new format (I suspect some P6s declined invites last year). Still, it’s a great deal for the mid-majors and a good compromise.

· There are only a few squads that lose out here.

o The team that would currently be the very last team into the field and play a first-four game, would now have to navigate an 8-team tournament. However, the other 3 First Four teams would be home free and into the field, so it seems like a fair trade off.

o There would be one team that would have made the NIT that would now be left out of the postseason entirely as this format includes 99 teams, while the current format has 100 teams between the NCAAs (68) and the NIT (32).

o The bottom eight automatic qualifiers take a hit here. In the past, four would have played in the first four, and six (the two First Four winners and four others) would have gotten a shot at a basketball blue blood in the first round. Now only one of the eight will get that chance. However, on the flip side, it does give those squads a chance to win some competitive games in the big dance in front of a national audience. I am sure they’d love to play Kansas, but getting a win or two in the NCAA Tournament can be a pretty good experience too.

· This arrangement obviously creates some logistical challenges. But the fact that we have NIT games on Tuesdays (sometimes already on Monday), and already have eight teams going to a neutral site for Tuesday/Wednesday First Four games makes me think we can pull it off. This would be why the selections would need to be moved to Saturday. I think the idea of playing three games in three days, taking a day off, and playing again is a harder one to swallow. Especially if you just played 2-3 games in your league tournament. Definitely some issues to work out there.

So how would this look in practice? I tried to set it up as best I could using last year’s NCAA and NIT brackets. To determine seeding and how things would look I used the NCAA/NIT seeding first, then more-or-less used NET second. I found a listing of the full rankings the NCAA used to seed the teams last year which helped a ton. There was no such seeding list for the NIT so I did my best. When seeding those games, I tried my best to keep two teams from the same league out of the same eight team bracket. However, I also didn't want any potential winner to face a team from the same league in the round of 64 or 32, and that took priority. If you would have faced a team from your conference in the next two rounds had you advance, I banned you from that bracket. So here are the final results below.

Here is the regular 64-team bracket.

As you can see, the bracket is identical for the first ten seeds. When we get to the 11 line, it starts to change as three of the four “first four” teams from last year's actual bracket are now automatically in the field. This is followed by the four winners of the last chance tournaments in the 12 and 13 lines (where they would naturally fall). From there you’ll see that the teams seeded 13th-16th are a seed or two lower than they were before. For example St. Peters, who went to the Elite 8 as a 15-seed in real life, is a 16 here. That is because there are now, essentially, 24 automatic bid spots and 40 at-larges. This is a change from the 29 and 35 that make it to the round of 64 in the current system.

So the next brackets are the five new groups of eight that would play for the final five spots in the field of 64. The first group I am calling the “First Four” because I can’t think of a better name for them. But essentially, it is the worst eight teams in the field playing in for the last 16-seed in the tournament. This is necessary because without it, you’d actually be losing several spots into the round of 64 for at-large teams which I see as a non-starter. No chance the big schools would agree to it, and it is pretty heavily leaning towards benefitting the mid-majors. You’d also not be moving the NIT participants into the tournament as directly, as there would only be 92 teams in the tournament total and eight teams that currently would be in the NIT would be left out entirely. To me, this is the compromise for keeping the regular season champions from mid-major leagues in the fold. You include them in the “last chance” tournament at the expense of having to have this bracket for the lowest qualifiers. This does cut down a little bit of the Cinderella-ness of the tournament. However, I do think there is still plenty of Cinderella to go around and it does give these squads a legit chance to win some games on the national stage (none won any games last year outside the First Four). Would they rather get a shot at winning the lottery against a 1-seed and be the next UMBC? Maybe. But I still think it’s a decent compromise to give them a shot to win some games. The 2022 First Four bracket is below.

The next four brackets would be the “last chance” brackets. This would essentially replace the NIT, and involve almost exactly the same field of teams as would normally be in the NIT. The very last team into the NCAAs in the old model (in this case Notre Dame) would end up here, and the very last team into the NIT in the old model (in this case St. Bonaventure) would be left out. But otherwise this could almost be an exact photocopy of the NIT bracket. These are games that would more-or-less be played in the NIT anyway, but instead of playing for the NIT title, they are playing for one of the last 4 spots into the field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament.

And that is pretty much it. Yes, there are problems with this. There are a few I probably didn’t think of. But the biggest ones I can think of are logistical. Some teams would have just finished their league tournaments to get shipped off to another one. How do you travel and prep in two days? I would say they already do it for the NIT, but that is usually just one game followed by a few days off if you win. Also, you could have some teams who just played 3 games in their league tournament, had one day off, and would play three games in this tournament, have just one day off, and then play in the NCAAs. That isn’t great!

That said, for better or worse there is a lot of momentum to expand the NCAA Tournament right now. And I think the current model is awesome and I believe a lot of fans are worried the change would ruin the competition somewhat. Another thing I have heard is that the NCAA owns the NIT and they would like to combine the two competitions since they are running them both anyway. Fair enough. My fear there is that one of the perks of winning a mid-major regular season league title would be lost without the automatic NIT bid, and expansion would just muddy down the field with mediocre P6 teams. This proposal addresses all those concerns. It keeps the basic 64-team format intact, absorbs the NIT nearly flawlessly and makes those games much more exciting and relevant, keeps the mid-major regular season title perk alive (without making league tournaments meaningless), protects the current at-large structure keeping the same number of teams that go directly to the 64-team field alive (and actually adds 3) while adding a plethora more at-large bids overall. Seems like a win-win-win to me!

Let me know what you think. And when the NCAA steals my idea, I would like credit!

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