Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.
The current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly, both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is merely that much more arbitrary and capricious.
I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But honestly, “arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve NCAA tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions. In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference, because if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.
That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in strategy was broached, we began moving inexorably toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most lucrative solution: An all-in 351-team NCAA basketball tournament.
That tipping point in 2001 should have been the NCAA’s cue to simply let everyone into the field, a la the Indiana high school basketball tournament, famous for having produced Hoosiers, among other amazing tourney runs over the course of a century. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy upsets that will inevitably stem from a 190-team college basketball play-in (our new Round 1) contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States of America.
Here’s how it all fits elegantly together, once enough university presidents, in their ivory tower wisdom, toss me the keys to this bus:
Step 1) The regular season ends by the close of February.
Step 2) All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, to be ranked by an agglomeration of metrics/polls, nos. 1 through 351.
Step 3) Round 1 — comprising 95 games, pitting the no. 351 seeded team vs. no. 161, 350 vs. 162 and so on — begins. All Round 1 games are to be hosted by the higher-seeded school (holding games on campus rewards higher seeds and avoids potential scheduling conflicts). All Round 1 games are played the first Tuesday and Wednesday of March. Round 1 is elegant in its mayhem: It reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.
Step 4) On Thursday and Friday, those 256 teams play 128 Round 2 games, the higher seeded team always hosting, thus reducing the field to 128.
Step 5) The 64 games comprising Round 3 take place Saturday and Sunday, neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to 64,
Et Voila. From the close of these three rounds — which actually occupy less time than the ever-expanding frippery of so-called Championship Week — the NCAA tournament proceeds as any self-respecting, 64-team knockout competition would. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk — for every Division I team earns a berth. Bracketology? That irksome construct and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it like a green, noxious haze is similarly put out to pasture.
You may well inquire as to the fate of Championship Week. Let’s agree on something right now: We don’t need it. Indeed, there is nothing more meaningless and contrived than this made-for-TV, desultory procession of games that serves no purpose but to supply sports-channel programmers with reams and reams of 2-hour content blocks. In a 351-team tournament, every single Round 1 game would be more competitively consequential, more fun, and more lucrative than any championship week game (see there: we needn’t capitalize it any longer; it’s already dead to me).
Have you noticed how championship week actually takes up to 10 days? It’s the reason March Madness now extends, nonsensically, into April. The 351 model solves this creeping issue, too. With no championship week to accommodate, the regular season can end on the last day of February, clearing the decks for our new Round 1 to begin the following Tuesday.
In five days’ time, at 6 p.m. on what we now refer to as Selection Sunday, the field will have been cleanly and fairly pared down to 64. No extension of the season. No more contrived, arbitrary, capricious play-in games. No more soul-sucking conference-tournament quarterfinals.
Most important, what remain aren’t the 64 most worthy teams as judged by some panel, power-rankings, play-in contents or one-off conference title games. They are the 64 teams still standing.
Anytime a truly brilliant, game-changing proposal like this one sees the light of day, we’re obliged to openly weigh the pros and cons.
Under this new format, here is what’s lost: championship week, an endless parade of largely meaningless games played out in largely empty arenas too cavernous for anything but a final.
What is gained? There is so much, we need bullets:
• Money — I think we’ve all grasped what the NCAA Tournament’s guiding principle truly is, so let’s just go with it. The first three rounds of our 351 Tourney will feature 287 games — each one legitimately shaping the field, each one bearing directly on the crowning of a national champion. The broadcast rights for these games will command extraordinary value. ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC (and their various cable sports affiliates) will all pay top dollar to cherry pick a full roster of games, leaving a range of regional and smaller, hometown networks to broadcast games based on local interest. The rest go out over the Internet, which may just explode.
In other words, while championship week exists for purely monetary reasons, this new format will generate far more revenue and revenue opportunity.
Remember, our 351 Tourney doesn’t in any way affect the current system from the Round of 64 on down. All that stays in place. Still, I hope that you’ve noticed just how poorly attended these Round of 64 games truly are. Empty seats all over the place. Even Round of 32 games do not fill these big arenas. During championship week, major conference quarter- and semifinals (major, mid-major and otherwise) are even more sparsely attended.
Consider the 287 games we propose over the first three rounds of a 351-team competition: Because they are played on-campus (or the home-court venue designated by the host school), they all sell out. Every one. The gate and the broadcast rights will be highly lucrative, and that money is funneled directly to the schools, not the conference. Consider the advertising sold/purchased during these 287 broadcasts. Think of the parking, the street vendors, the local bars. Cumulative remuneration to the airlines alone will markedly boost our gross domestic product.
So, don’t talk economics in defense of the current system. A 351-team format would blow its doors off in that regard.
• Madness — Many adore the first two rounds of the existing tournament purely for the craziness of 32 games played over the course of two days — in truth, it’s all conducted in the space of 36 hours. Take that pure smorgasbord appeal, triple it, and you’ve effectively sized up the Round 1 mayhem of a 351-team approach.
Quadruple it for Round 2.
These first four days of competition will represent a truly insane spectacle of blowouts, nail-biters and upsets — played in packed gyms, all over the country. The third round will “only” double the size of the current Thursday/Friday schedule (the craziest 36 hours in basketball) and it will serve to answer all the questions that pundits today spend weeks blathering about. Bubble teams? There are no bubble teams. Power rankings? Once the teams are seeded 1 through 351, seeds are more or less irrelevant.
• Logic & Fairness — The stated charge of the NCAA is to serve the interests of all member colleges and universities, and each “student-athlete” who participates in intercollegiate competitions. Yes, there is a boatload of money involved. This merely underlines the NCAA’s responsibility to ensure that money is distributed in ways that aren’t arbitrary and capricious. A 351-team system is the most equitable way to carve up this money (while also creating a larger pie for the carving).
[It is, of course, absurd and exploitative that “student-athletes”, the labor component in this capitalist equation, receives not one red cent of this revenue. But that is an argument for another day.]
The true magic of a 351-game tournament would be manifest in larger, broader ways. Perhaps counter-intuitively, these will disproportionately affect college basketball’s regular season — for the better.
Today, the regular season is almost devoid of meaning. Even a “big” January game, such as Duke-UNC, matters not one iota in the competitive sense, as both teams will make the field of 68. For both teams, such a game is basically just one of 35 warm-up/exhibitions. “Smaller” games pitting less-hegemonic programs against one another are meaningless, too, because their NCAA aspirations depend entirely on what they will do in their conference tournaments, that first week in March. In the universe of NCAA regular season games (10,530 of them, if we multiply 351 by 30), only a handful or regular-season games might actually affect tournament fortunes — even then, we’re talking a small pool of would-be, at-large candidates from major conferences.
In a 351 world, with NCAA tournament appearances assured for all, regular season conference championships will once again matter for their own sake. We know this to be true because, before the NCAA tournament became the sole focus of Division I administrations, coaches and players, an SEC title mattered quite a lot. Banners were raised and trophies bestowed. If you played in the Big Sky Conference, you wanted to prove you were better than all your local rivals — a.k.a., those members of the Big Sky Conference. Chests were puffed out to mark these achievements. They used to matter, and they will again when the carrot of NCAA tournament participation is removed. We see this dynamic persist at every lower level of intercollegiate basketball. We see it in high school basketball. There is no reason it won’t return to Division I basketball.
Let’s extrapolate further: A 351 format will also return to college basketball a healthy regionalism that has been lost.
Indiana and Kentucky, two storied border rivals, haven’t played a regular-season game in 4 years and don’t have any future games planned. They compete in different conferences and have nothing to gain by playing each other “intersectionally”. A 351 model frees them up to schedule home-and-home games each and every year.
These situations exist everywhere. Here in New England, Boston College doesn’t schedule UMass because the Eagles, as members of a more powerful conference, have nothing to gain by playing regional rivals like the Minutemen — only something to lose. For teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma (two bitter rivals now estranged by the Huskers’ decision to join the Big 10), they both stand to lose — if they lose. These games aren’t worth the trouble under the current system. Nebraska is better off padding its schedule with games they know they can win, to better impress the NCAA selection committee.
However, when every team makes the tournament, it’s in every team’s interest to pursue the most competitive schedule possible (to better prepare them for tournament play) and the most regional schedule possible — to save travel expense and serve the interest of fans, who want their teams to square off with traditional, regional rivals.
A bad out-of-conference loss may hurt a team’s seeding, but good RPI — the determinant of 1-through-351 ranking/seeding — is built by playing good teams, not shitty ones. There will be great value in hosting the first three rounds of a fully expanded tournament. Teams will seek tough schedules; regional rivals will become more and more attractive for this alone.
Here’s another sanguine regional repercussion: Recruiting in a 351 world will be dominated to a lesser extent by the 30-40 A-list programs that routinely make the field of 68.
There is obviously a group of players today who see their college careers as mere weigh stations on the path to NBA stardom. This relatively small cohort will still congregate at top programs that 1) provide superior NBA preparation, based mainly on the coach and his policy toward playing potentially one-and-done freshmen; and 2) guarantee NCAA tournament participation. However, a 351-team tournament will influence a far larger number of A- and B-level high school players to attend less heralded college programs closer to home — because NCAA participation is assured. This will better distribute talent throughout Division I basketball and ultimately, over time, enhance the competitiveness of Rounds 1-2-3.
For those who see this as representing overly radical change — to a system that isn’t perfect is clearly pretty darned fun — it’s important to point out that the status quo (and the status quo ante, stretching back to 1985, when the field was expanded from 32 to 64 teams) has never been “fair”.
Even at 64 teams, there was never a reasonable ratio of conference champions to at-large bids. For many years there were roughly 30 conference bids and 34 at-large bids — a pure money grab by the major conferences. This modus operandi extends to the coverage of major conference tournament games even today. This year, I flipped on the tube one Friday night in early March and there were 8 different, completely irrelevant, major-conference semifinals dominating the airwaves. ESPN broadcasts the America East final each year at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The Big Sky final was televised at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night, on ESPNU. The current system screws small and mid-major teams in terms of competitiveness and exposure, even as it makes millions for ESPN and the major conferences.
It just so happens there are 351 Division I teams this year. There will undoubtedly be more next year. This proliferation of D1 teams, and conferences (all of which earn automatic bids eventually), is the reason the NCAA went to the play-in format in the first place. Too many major-conference teams were missing out on NCAA riches and exposure — on account of these new leagues earning their automatic bids and soaking up too large a percentage of the 64 tournament slots.
An all-in approach is completely elastic. It doesn’t matter how many Division I teams there are. One round and we’re down to 256, and away we go.