If we are to believe a thinly sourced blog's report of an offhand quote on a sports talk show by Lesley Visser, the NCAA is not only seriously considering the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams, but they are going live with the expanded format next season, as well as eliminating the NIT.
While I wouldn't miss the NIT, I'm not sure where I stand with the proposed expansion personally.
On the one hand:
- It eliminates the possibility of an inflammatory snub. Virginia Tech, the highest rated team to get the cold shoulder, was in the top 40 overall, with as many as 10 teams rated below them getting in at-large. Under a 96 team format, they would have definitely made it. And the new bubble would be around the 80's in rank, hardly a point where anyone would complain about someone getting left out. At that point we're talking teams that probably don't even qualify for the NIT today. Talk about the bubble gets a lot less exciting, and in a good way.
- We get more exciting early round basketball! Most of March Madness' excitement is all about the small colleges in the early rounds trying to pull a big upset or spark a Cinderella run, as well as the general chaos of CBS furiously flipping between up to four games at once, making sure to keep their eyes on the close contests. Once you reach the Sweet 16, you have one or two fleshed out Cinderella teams against a field of power teams, and your best hope for an upset otherwise is for a #4 seed (one of the top 15-20 teams in the nation) upsetting a #1 seed.
With an additional round, and better parity within that additional round, we get three rounds of non-stop action and serious upset and Cinderella potential... compared to the two we have now.
- It would give the small college teams an actual chance in hell. Right now, the least of the bunch gets a #16 seed and is force fed to one of the top four teams in the country. #16 seeds are now 0-104 all time vs the #1 seed since the field expanded to 64 in the mid-1980's, and the best chances we've seen at a 16-1 upset came years ago. As the power teams get better and better, the prospects of a #16 seed making the round of 32 get dimmer and dimmer: The average 16 seed has no better than a 7-8% chance of winning vs a #1, typically a 2-4% chance.
But in an expanded 96 team format, those bottom teams would become #24 seeds, and instead of playing a #1 seed, they would open against a #9 seed, with the winner getting the #8 seed. Their chances would still be somewhat dim against a #9 seed, but they would at least have a fighting chance, as at the #8-9 range you're talking about talented but flawed top 40 teams, weak in one or more aspects or inconsistent in general. Catch them on a bad day or match up with them well, and you could have a serious chance at an upset.
The only way a #24 would see a #1 seed is if they won two tournament games, which would be two more than they have ever won in the 64 team tournament (clearly I am not counting the Play-In Game as part of the tournament proper). And at that point, it would have already been a more than satisfying run in the Tournament, compared to the current M.O. of 'get annihilated on Thursday and go home'.
On the other hand:
- It would dilute the tournament with an excess of power conference teams. Big East commissioner John Marinatto's claim of getting 16 teams in with an expanded format is a bit outlandish, but not by much. In an expanded format they would have sent (according to Sagarin ratings) about 13 teams. The one conference that would have sent all their teams? The ACC. At that point....
- ... why even hold conference tournaments if you're a power conference? Small conference tournaments would still have a purpose, as many conferences don't have a team rated highly enough to qualify at large, let alone several, so there's leverage to winning a conference tournament. But the power conferences are loaded with teams with strength of schedules in the top 3rd of Division I. Many of the conferences would send half of their conference at-large, if not their entire conference. Holding a tournament at that point is kind of meaningless, unless you're trying to get a really weak conference team in to squeeze out an additional bid for the conference. But in the case of the ACC and Big East, that's kind of silly because most or all of your conference can get in easily.
If all or nearly all of your conference's teams are going to the NCAA's, is there even a purpose to holding a tournament to determine who gets the automatic bid? At that point, everyone with a winning record is getting an automatic bid. The lowest rated team in most power conferences is around the 70's, well within the likely cutoff of 80 or so for a 96 team format. Why so many at large teams?
- More mid-major and small conference champs would have the rank to climb in at-large, and once you get to the last of the at-large bids, you're encountering teams with losing records. This is the ultimate proof that 96 teams is too many. Go to the overall Sagarin ratings and you'll hit your first sub .500 team at #75, Iowa State. At that point, after subtracting the conference champs and handing at-large bids to the highest rated teams otherwise, you've still got six at-large bids left. I passed about four teams with losing records before I found 65 qualifying at-large bids. And many of the teams hypothetically let in were only 2-3 games over .500.
I suppose you could minimize this slightly embarrassing issue by handing bids to small-conference regular season champs who lose their conference tournaments, but it still illustrates how weak the bottom of the at-large barrel gets once you expand to 96.
Plus, not that all or most conferences are inherently corrupt, but letting in the regular season champ AND the tourney champ could encourage smaller and mid-major conferences to dive their top seeds with biased officiating to faciliate an upset loss so they can get an additional teams into the tournament (There's no guarantee that didn't happen in the WAC or Conference USA this year). It's probably a better idea not to create such a rule, and at least give the CBI and/or Collegeinsider.com tournaments a reason to exist by allowing those deposed small conference regular season champs to play there instead. The latter consolation tournament has pushed itself as a small and mid-major championship anyway, so it would play right to their appeal factor as a consolation tourney.
- Since bottom end power conference teams could qualify at-large with a winning record, you'll see power conference teams playing much weaker schedules to pad their records, knowing they can pad their strength of schedule in conference play and probably sucker in even if they finish dead last in their conference. This will reduce opportunities for all but the worst of the small and mid-major conference teams, and if any were to (heaven forbid) upset a few of these power teams, they would probably never get scheduled again. You'd create (or further solidify) a Division I caste, where power and mid-major teams play among themselves, small conference teams play among themselves, and the pecking order only deviates when a power team sees a chance at an easy win against an overmatched opponent.
Basically, it'd be kind of like what we have now in the regular season, except exaggeratedly so. Except the Gonzagas of the world won't be able to find good non-con opponents to play because the power conference teams will gain nothing from playing them that they can't gain from a good conference schedule and a dozen easy non-con wins over crappy opponents.
- It will dramatically reduce the chances of the top seeds making the Final Four, let alone winning the tournament. The #1 and #2 seeds, instead of playing weak small conference foes in round one, would now face more competitive NIT-quality teams. They would still be big favorites, but the contests would not be walk-overs (with the occasional scare). The UABs and Seton Halls of the world can hang with and beat the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world on a good day, instead of once in a century. Instead of a 92-98% chance of winning their first game, they would have a 70-85% chance, still good but giving dramatically greater chances of an upset. Many of the upsets we just saw in rounds one and two were pulled by teams with 10-20% chances of winning. They happen: 20% means that one of every five such contests will end with an upset.
Wait... I guess that can be seen as a good thing. But then again, the best teams will now have a much harder time winning a national championship. We may be surprised at the quality, and the number of losses, of the eventual champions of a 96 team tournament. It'll more and more resemble a poker tournament, where the winner isn't usually the best team, but the luckiest.
So anyway, I'm not sure how I would feel about a 96 team tournament, but I'm sure I could live with it as easily as I could live without it. Next I'll map out a hypothetical bracket and show what a 96 team tournament field would have looked like had the NCAA done it this year.