March 5, 2010

96 Problems, But Dartmouth Ain’t One

5-21? Sure! Come and dance!

The rumor has it that, perhaps as early as next season, the NCAA will decide to expand March Madness and invite 96 teams to their championship tournament – up from the current total of 65 teams. I don't know for sure if they will go through with it, but on the surface it seems to be a horrible idea.

Right now there are 31 college conferences that get an "automatic bid" to the tournament, and all but the Ivy League awards that golden ticket to the team that has a three-game winning streak at the end of the season in the conference tournament. Of course, that means that occasionally a truly deserving team from a smaller conference – like say, a 23-win team from the Colonial – in favor of the seventh-place team in the ACC.

While I do believe there is a bit of an inequity in this regard, I'd rather the solution be that a rule is passed that a team must finish in the upper half of its conference standings to make the tournament, rather than adding 31 extra teams to account for the one or two quality snubs that occur each year. An even simpler solution would be to – rather than have one play-in game between the two weakest conference tournament champions for a shot to play the overall No. 1 seed – expand the field by three to 68 and have a play-in game amongst the "last four in" and "last four out" bubble dwellers. Those winners would then be given a 12-seed and all would be right with the world.

If the NCAA suddenly hands out 31 more at-large bids, now you're looking at teams like NC State – currently in last place in the ACC making the tournament. That's insane, but it's what will likely happen. With 96 teams, the concept would be to give 32 teams a bye. Here's the only way I see this idea having any merit. All 31 (and eventually perhaps 32 – the Great West may one day earn an automatic bid) conference regular season champions get a bid, making the regular season actually matter. Then you still have the conference tournaments and award an automatic bid to that winner as well.

So what's to prevent a team like Butler from simply tanking the conference tournament to allow a second team from the Horizon Conference into the dance? Simple. First round byes are automatically given to any team that wins both the regular season and their conference tournament. You think a school like Morgan State wouldn't love to be given what amounts to an "8-seed"? They'd come to play!

It's not going to happen this way, but I'd love to see it. After all, the whole reason we love the first few rounds of the tournament is the potential for upsets and Cinderella stories. Why not encourage more of that rather than dilute the field to the point of homeopathic preposterousness?

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