Remaking the NCAA Basketball Tournament

Hot Beef Take

There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about the “fairness” of inclusion for the mid- and low-majors conferences in recent NCAA tournaments. Now former Southern Illinois head coach, Barry Hinson, recently made remarks about expanding the “Big Dance”. Although his idea about field expansion in recent history was correct in general, his preciseness was a bit off. Hinson made reference that the NCAA has added only four spots since 1984-85, when the tourney expanded to 64(from a previous 53). He stated that over 100 teams have been added to Division I since then. Not quite. In 1984-85, there were 282 schools participating for those 64 bids. During this season of 2018-19, there are 353 schools playing for 68 bids. Correct, a 4 bid jump, but 71 additional teams. Semantics. But his intent was 100% spot on.

In years past, teams from mid- and low-majors, could have a relatively decent shot of garnering at-large bids. It was not completely uncommon for teams from the Missouri Valley, Atlantic Ten, Mid-American, Mountain West or Western Athletic Conferences to snag an extra bid here or there. A couple of times, as many as four total bids would went to one of these conferences.

As years have gone by, a shift has happened. The money has gotten even bigger. CBS, TruTV, TBS and TNT now combine their efforts and cover every single game in the First and Second Round. ESPN or ESPN2 will show the four “play-in” games, just to make the tournament field of 64. People will come down with mysterious illnesses on Thursday and Friday next week. And instead of going to a doctor, they will medicate themselves with soda, beer, chips, pizza, hot dogs and anywhere from 8-12 hours of television each day. Then by almost divine intervention, they’ll be healed by Monday. All this time, the television they’re medicating with will stream countless advertisements, telling them to buy this or try that. And those pushing the product will pay the networks gigantic money. Money that eventually gets funneled to the schools and their conferences.

And the bigger conferences will power play the NCAA tournament. Their schools have larger fan bases, large endowments and larger enrollments, typically. They’ve pushed for changes in selection criteria. Many folks are upset with the new NCAA NET ratings and rankings as opposed to the old RPI system. The system really isn’t to blame, as the numbers for the best mid- and low-majors really aren’t that different from the past’s old system. The big difference is what they’ve done in evaluating teams in the new Quadrant System. Rewarding teams who play more games against other teams at the top. Teams from the top conferences will almost always occupy the high majority of that Quadrant 1. And that’s the area that gets the most focus. And that’s where the lesser conferences are at a disadvantage.

Going back to years ago, the mid- and low-majors could be be figured to land anywhere from a low of 5, to a high of 8 at-large bids. This is from a pool of 36. In recent years the Power Five(Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big XII, Pacific-Twelve and Southeastern) conferences have been joined by the Big East to form a basketball Power Six. Even more recently, the American has become the seventh conference in the power group. The American is made up of many teams that were the best teams from other conferences, cherry-picked to make an elite basketball league. With that, the mid- and low-majors are lucky to get 5 of those 36. In 2019, it might be a low as 2 or 3.

So how do we fix it?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here. I appeared last year as the Emperor of College Football. I will be repackaged as the College Basketball Czar, for the rest of this article.

First, there needs to be more participation. Adding just 4 teams to the tournament since 1985, while 71 more are competing just doesn’t cut it. How many more? Let’s do some mathematics. I am a numbers guy, after all.

  • 1985, there were 282 teams overall. 64 made the tournament. That is 22.7%
  • 2019, there are 353 teams overall. Multiplied by 22.7%. That is 80 teams. So, we’ll be adding 12 teams.
  • The new field would consist of 32 conference champions and 48 at-large bids.

80 teams is a nice squared number. It’s divisible by four, which is the number of regions the tournament has. With any number, you’re going to have an imbalanced bracket with some pigtail games. It’s more or less the same as the “play-in” games we have now. We need a format and new bracket.

The 4 highest seeds in each regional will play an opponent from the bottom 32 teams in the field. They will play play-in games, just like now. They could be conference champions or at-large teams. The rest of the field will be seeded as normal. There would be a different pairing in the play-in round. The teams seeded 13-16, would be paired against teams with 4 seeds difference. This is to try to insure the top 64 make the tourney of 64 and if a #20 seed pulls an upset, they would have to play a #1, instead of a #4, if it were bracketed according to a normal tree. The regional bracket would look like this.

Last thing to address is team selection for inclusion in the tournament. We can add as many teams as we want and just give those to power conference teams, but it wouldn’t really be beneficial. If the purpose is to just get the 80 best teams in the tournament, then you would probably have to get rid of all automatic bids. That’s not only an unfair idea, it would be completely void any drama that a Cinderella story has of happening in the tournament in the first place. And those stories are what make the tournament great.

Long has been the question, who’s better off getting at-large bids in the first place; a mid-level power conference team who might just be playing out the string or a hungry mid- or low-major team, who’s trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a very difficult dilemma. Of course, you want the best teams you can get, but there really should be a balance and not just automatically give power conference teams the benefit of the doubt, just because they’re power conference teams. So a couple at-large provisions will be added.

  • To be considered for an at-large bid, a team has to have a conference record within one win of .500 in their conference. Example, a Big XII team playing an 18-game conference schedule, would have to be no worse than 8-10 in Big XII play(9-9 would be .500). This is similar to a provision “The Sports Guy” Gary Rima would like to see implemented, with teams needing a .500 record. However, there’s a great deal of teams from superior conferences who just miss this threshold. Dropping down one game would insure you have almost every deserving team without crippling the selection process.
  • To be considered for an at-large bid, a team has to have an overall record that is at least two games over .500 after their conference tournament. With an expanded field, the focus should be more on teams who’ve won, rather than those who’ve just scraped by. A team who is 9-11 in conference and 16-15 overall shouldn’t be in the tournament.
  • To be considered for an at-large bid, there will be less focus on Quadrant 1 record and more of a focus on Quadrants 1 AND 2. Many teams from mid- and low-majors don’t get the same number of opportunities to play Quadrant 1, some barely get Quadrant 2 games. But this focus would also help leveling the field for inclusion to all.
  • More focus will be given to non-conference strength of schedule, in particular, games played on the road.

The final provision would be one that was recently suggested by Loyola, Chicago’s head coach, Porter Moser. He believes the regular season champion from the top 12 conferences should earn automatic inclusion into the “Big Dance”. This is a solid idea, but it would only add perhaps 3 bids. So instead, we’ll make a slight change. We’ll use either an average NET ranking or Sagarin conference ranking to determine those top 12 conferences two weeks before Selection Sunday. Teams that receive these automatic bids can be given the option to play in their conference tournaments. If they happen to also win their tournament, the team they beat in the final will also get a bid. But this is reserved ONLY for the top 12 conferences.

Listen in on Friday, March 15. The Sports Zoo plans on making Friday’s open line a lot of discussion on this topic.