The NCAA's Manifest Destiny: The 128-Team Tournament
These are some exciting times for this blog. A cause this site had been championing for a couple years is now on the national agenda. What could be such an amazingly important issue that would receive a groundswell of support and enter the public consciousness? Of course, the issue is expanding the NCAA Basketball tournament to 128 teams. This is truly a brilliant idea. Here's the case for it:
1. It's only 1 more game. On a micro level, individual teams only need to play one more game to reach the Final Four. This isn't too big of a deal for the student-athletes, coaches, and administrative staff involved. Very little course work would need to be missed and/or re-scheduled. Scheduling one more flight and hotel is not a dire adjustment. Because the tournament is single-elimination, it will be the last set of reservations 64 of the teams need to make, and the winners will gladly trade the slight inconvenience for the right to claim an NCAA tournament victory.
2. For fans, this is most likely 2 more days of the greatest sustained sporting event in America. The NCAA could even stretch it out to 4 days if it so desired, but this blog envisions that only two days would be necessary to fit in all of the games. This would be a good way to avoid overkill while still providing the sensory overload that sports fans, bar owners, and Damon's owners all crave. This blog also thinks that filling out 128-team brackets would be pretty awesome, and as a college basketball fan, this blog also thinks that bracketology would become more of an exact science with an extra round for the office secretaries to try and navigate. Certainly, larger brackets and/or smaller typefaces might be required, but this is a minor detail.
3. It is a convenient time to make the switch. The NCAA just bought out the NIT last year, in a bizarre settlement of an antitrust suit (Agree to withdraw monopoly charges by selling out to ensure a monopoly?). At any rate, this means all of postseason NCAA basketball is under the same ownership. The current setup is 65 teams in the NCAA tournament, and 40 teams in the NIT. Merging a very underwhelming, half-assed tournament into the greatest tournament in America seems like a better idea than keeping the "losers bracket" separate. This would bring the NCAAs to a confusing 105 teams. Tacking on 23 extra (and equally qualified) teams to balance out the bracket seems to be a reasonable step to take from there.
4. This would bring balance to the bracket. Since 2001, the NCAA tournament has had an awkward "Opening Round Game," between the two worst teams in the bracket. While somewhat amusing in that it gives a low seed a chance to "win a tournament game," everyone seems to see through this facade. This blog would be stunned if any examples could be found of a school landing a recruit based on winning this play-in game. It's one of the lamest victories in sports, and 99% of NCAA tournament pools don't even acknowledge this game by counting it toward each participant's total. Even ESPN broadcaster Erik Kuselias (a proponent of the 128 cause) expressed dismay about having to promote the Opening Round game every year. Any bracket between 64 and 128 is going to be inherently unbalanced, since most proposals of 80-team tournaments include the stipulation that the lowest-seeded teams would be among the 16 "play-in" teams, in the process illegitimatizing 14 other smaller conference champions' seasons and chances of reaching the Final Four.
5. The NCAA is competitively balanced enough to ensure very few blowouts. George Mason is the poster child of this movement. The 11th-seeded Patriots could have easily been excluded from the tourney this season, as they had a starter suspended for the first game of the postseason, they had lost the Colonial Athletic Association's semifinal game, and other teams with higher RPIs could have taken their place. Instead, GMU won 4 games and got to the Final Four. This could have happened with any number of teams. Three of the four 1-vs.-16 matchups were hotly contested well into the 2nd half, and early entry has contributed to a drain on perennially strong programs in power conferences. In the meantime, small conference schools have been spurned on by recent successes of mid-major conference schools such as GMU, Gonzaga, Kent State, and St. Joseph's. Though blue-chip recruits will now listen to the small schools and, on rare occasion, head to a smaller conference, the larger issue is that a blueprint has been laid out. Schools like Murray State, Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, and Northeastern know that they can compete with powerhouses if they emphasize a team effort and bring an experienced team to the postseason. A 32-seed might look a little strange in the beginning, but not after it takes the 1-seed to the limit.
6. 128 of the 334 teams is not an inordinate percentage. 38.3% of the Division I schools would be included in the post-season. 37.5% of the NFL makes their playoffs. 53.3% of the NBA makes their playoffs. Most of NCAA's Division I makes it to a football bowl game. Taking 2 automatic bids from each conference would put 62 teams in the tournament automatically, leaving 66 at-large bids. Roughly 16 tournament teams would be worse than 128th nationally in RPI. Those would fit in to the 29th through 32nd seeds. Presumably the other 50 of the auto-bids would be in the top-128 of the RPI, and the worst of the at-larges would end up around 116th or so. Last year that would have roughly translated to 15-13 Kansas State, 15-15 Mississippi State, or 15-13 Fresno State. For the worst team in the tournament, this blog isn't seeing that as a major problem. (Yes, this blog knows Fresno State wasn't post-season eligible last year. No, you didn't know that).
In the meantime, while allowing a good deal of the major conference schools entry to the tournament, this proposal would get at least 2 bids for every conference, almost like a "House of Representatives" for the NCAAs. Mid-majors wouldn't get screwed here either. The Missouri Valley Conference would have sent all 6 of its above-.500 teams. The Mountain West would have sent 4 or 5 schools, the Colonial would have sent 6. The ACC most likely would have sent 10 schools, but all of them finished at or above .500. One would be hard-pressed to find a deserving sub-.500 team with all of the .500 or higher teams in the nation, but it would be easy to require .500 as a ticket to the tourney if for some reason this was a problem.
This blog hopes that takes care of any arguments against 128, but lay them on Pun City if you care to opine. This blog would like to as a final note that getting venues for the extra round does not seem to be a great challenge. With the added number of venues needed, and also the constant number of college basketball fans that want to attend the games live (as opposed to watching 12 games at once at home), the NCAA would not need to find huge venues. They could still use huge venues, but smaller arenas like Bowling Green's Anderson Arena, UW-Milwaukee's US Cellular Arena, and Pacific's Alex Spanos Center would now be solid options for some first-round games. Intimate venues could be back! 128 may seem like a huge number when compared to 65, but not compared to the infinite positive possibilities it brings to the table.