March Madness could get bigger

Here’s the story you probably heard about.

A recommendation by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee issued Tuesday would expand the NCAA basketball tournaments to 90 teams.

The committee tasked with finding “opportunities to modernize college sports” issued several recommendations in a 39-page report, most notably the expansion of postseason tournaments. From the report, the committee issued the following recommendation:

Accommodate access for 25% of active Division I members in good standing in team sports sponsored by more than 200 schools.

This would include both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments and expand both fields. Each tournament currently invites 68 teams. There are 358 Division I men’s basketball programs and 350 women’s programs. A field of 25% would break down to roughly 90 teams for each tournament, assuming the NCAA would seek to keep both fields the same size.

Tuesday’s recommendation is strictly that — a recommendation. It will go to the Division I board of directors for consideration at next week’s NCAA convention. Expansion would also require approval of each sport’s governing body. The committee called for final recommendations to be made by January 2024 in time to be implemented for the 2024-25 seasons.

The report has a lot more stuff in it about things like medical coverage, mental health services, degree completion and more, but the possible tournament expansion was the subject of the headlines. It’s also not likely to happen anytime soon.

There was some predictable, dismayed reactions to the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee’s official set of recommendations released on Tuesday. The most notable proposal is the option for D-I sports with 200-plus teams to allow championship brackets to fill by as many as 25% of that sport’s membership. In college basketball, this means the bracket could grow as large as 90 teams.

But the NCAA Tournament isn’t going to expand to 90 teams.

I doubt it’s going to expand at all — at least any time soon. My belief is buttressed by conversations with a handful of high-ranking sources across the industry.

“Going to 90, you’d roll on the floor laughing at the quality of teams,” one NCAA source said. “It’s unfathomable that someone could think that’s a good idea.”

There is stern belief among many NCAA Tournament power brokers that significant expansion (say, anything north of 80 teams) isn’t desired and won’t be happening, according to my sources. Minor expansion (going to 72 or 76) doesn’t carry temptation right now either but would theoretically be more plausible way down the road if push ever came to shove.

“There’s been no consideration, despite opportunities multiple times, for expansion,” another source said. “It’s never gotten a serious consideration. Not even remotely.”

That’s one part missing from this discourse. The NCAA didn’t need the Transformation Committee’s permission to consider expansion. It’s always an option. The fact it’s never grown beyond 68 speaks volumes, especially after a trial balloon about a 96-team tournament was roundly ridiculed in 2010.

Expansion isn’t something that can be done over a few lengthy Zoom meetings. It would take years of planning and thousands of hours of coordination between dozens of very important people. Who ultimately decides? The Division I men’s basketball committee (i.e. selection committee members), which has logically opted against expansion in the past 12 years. NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt, who oversees that committee, would be the biggest voice in the room, in addition to other senior NCAA staff. From there, the men’s basketball oversight committee would have to approve any changes before a vote went to the Board of Directors.

But that’s not in the plans right now.

There’s more, and however you feel about this idea the case that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon and maybe shouldn’t happen at all (or only at a more modest level) is compelling. I had forgotten about the 2010 proposal that went nowhere; there had been some rumblings about expansion before that as well. I’ll be honest and say that I’d love to see the tournament expand out to 96 teams – the top 32 seeds would get a bye in this scenario, which ought to reduce the concerns about having more non-competitive games. I’d like to see more teams from the non-power conferences get a shot. There are 40 teams in the NIT every year, the big bracket can accommodate a larger field. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it, but I hope that someday it will happen.

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3 Responses to March Madness could get bigger

  1. Frederick says:

    I think they meant “opportunities to MONETIZE college sports”, not modernize.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    It’s all about more money. Every sport has increased its season, its playoff teams, and, of course, its prices.

  3. C.L. says:

    Bigger field of competitors for the next World Cup and everybody and the brother in the D1 NCAA tournament happening for one reason: $’s.

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