April 02, 2007
Expanding the NCAA tournament

I've been wondering if the size of the NCAA tournament is something that might get tinkered with again now that 64 is no longer a sacred number. Looks like the possibility exists for it to happen, though apparently not soon.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim admitted he probably isn't the greatest person to ask about expanding the number of the schools that can compete in the NCAA tournament.

''Somebody else better take that one,'' Boeheim said when he was asked about it during a National Association of Basketball Coaches news conference Thursday. ''If it was retroactive, I think it would be a great idea.''

The Orange widely was regarded as the team most unfairly left out of the 65-team field this season, but Boeheim has been on the expansion bandwagon before, even in seasons when Syracuse made it easily.

A record 104 schools won 20-plus games this season, which bolsters the argument for an expanded field.

''It's something that coaches, I think, feel very strongly about -- that there should be some level of expansion,'' Rice coach Willis Wilson said. ''But I think it's going to take more than just a basic conversation to figure out what that number is.''

NCAA president Myles Brand said he thinks too much of an expansion would hurt the tournament, but he said adding a few more play-in games might be one workable way to bring in more teams.

''When asked that question this past year, [college presidents] said no,'' Brand said. ''But it's not off the table. I think in the future that may happen. There are no active conversations going on right now, but I think that kind of conversation over the next few years may well take place.''

I think expansion is a good idea, but not an incremental add-a-few-play-in-games type of expansion, because I don't think most people think of the play-in games as being a part of the "real" tournament. I think if you're going to expand, you go ahead and add another round of play. That doesn't mean you have to go to the next power of 2, but you could easily accomodate 80 or 96 teams by starting the tournament on Tuesday and using byes. With 80 teams, you have 32 of them play for the right to be seeded 13 through 16; with 96 teams, the top 32 get a bye and the rest play for the 9 and lower slots. We already have 64 teams playing a game over the course of two days, so this is logistically possible. It might mean compressing or shifting the regular season and/or conference tournaments, or it might mean accepting the fact that March Madness will permanently bleed into April, just as the World Series now crosses into November. Either way, it can be done.

But should it? Well, I think a strong case can be made that there's room for more. Consider this:

College basketball (if you don't count the NIT, and let's not, since it's very much a consolation prize) has the lowest percentage of teams that qualify for the postseason of all the major North American sports, and hockey.

College Basketball: 19.3%. 65 out of 336 teams.
MLB: 26.6%. 8 out of 30 teams make the playoffs.
NFL: 12 out of 32 teams make the playoffs: 37.5%
College Football: 62 teams play in bowl games, out of 119 total: 52.1%
NBA: 16 out of 30 teams make the playoffs: 53.4%
NHL: 16 out of 30 teams make the playofs: 53.4%

Expanding the tournament to 80 or 96 brings it more in line with other levels of postseason participation. Making these extra games a two-day affair at the regional sites enables them to feel like a part of the real tournament and not a tacked-on extra. It would make seeding more important - right now, the difference between being an 8 and a 9, or even a 7 and a 10, is small, even negligible; under a 96-team tournament, it would be crucial. But overall, I think the case for is stronger than the case against.

You may say that any expansion would just be adding teams that have no legitimate shot at the championship. I'd say that's true, though as George Mason reminded us last year, having a low seed is not a bar to making it to the Final Four. But if the tournament were just about crowning a champion, we might as well shrink it, for surely in any given year only a handful of teams have a real chance to win it all. But who wants a basketball version of the BCS? What makes the Tournament so special isn't just the finals but the opening rounds, with its upsets and Cinderellas and anything-can-happen attitude. Expanding the Tournament gives a few more teams the chance to experience that thrill. Given that there's room to expand within the size of the NCAA basketball field, I say that's a worthwhile reason. What do you think?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 02, 2007 to Other sports

I'm opposed to expanding the tournament. In fact I would decrease the number of at large teams by 1 and get back to 64. The "opening round game" is the dumbest thing around - 1 game = a "round". I don't think so.

Posted by: Patrick on April 2, 2007 7:59 AM