NCAA Field at 68, Now What?

Billy Donovan

The NCAA has already made the decision to expand the basketball tournament from 65 to 68 teams, but now comes the tricky part. How do you make it work? The NCAA Basketball Committee will begin meetings in Indianapolis on Sunday in hopes of agreeing to a format for the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament.

The issue the committee has to settle first and foremost is determining which teams will play in the first round games. Since the NCAA expanded to 65 teams the "play-in" game has in essence been the two weakest teams in the field. It's a designation which insults those schools that take part in the contest and leaves the loser feeling as if it didn't even make the tournament.

The immediate reaction many had was to simply take the eight weakest teams in the field, seed them No. 16 and No. 17 in their respective regionals and that would be that. However, the NCAA is experiencing quite a push back from the smaller conferences and traditionally black conferences (SWAC, MEAC) to try and keep that from happening. Their position is one I don't agree with, but it is justifiable.

Making their case ---- The smaller conferences, which traditionally see their champion seeded No. 15 or No. 16, are lobbying for the first round games to feature at-large teams. Their argument is that the conference champs earned their spots in the field and should be assured of being part of the main event. They want to see the play-in games feature the last eight at-large teams chosen for the tournament. The point they make is that those eight teams are the ones about whom the most debate takes place as to whether or not they belong in the event so they should have to "justify" their inclusion. I see their point, but I disagree on several levels.

Seeding inconsistency ---- The only way this could work in terms of building the bracket is if the final eight teams are all seeded No. 12 A and No. 12 B. That the way the winners of the play-in games would face the No. 5 seed in each region. The problem with that is there is usually a pretty good differentiation in the seeding(s) of the final eight at-large teams so placing them on the same line is not an accurate reflection of where those teams actually belong.

Locking lower seeds ---- No matter where you draw the line for the last eight at large teams you force the committee to place a certain number of teams on the lower line. If you use No. 12 as the play-in line, then you have to have exactly 20 teams below that line. The committee could consider a team the 45th best in the field, but have to seed them No. 53 overall to accommodate this sort of structure.

The "stupid" factor ---- The public doesn't like it when big government or big sports or big business hands us something stupid. Examples include the Edsel and New Coke just for beginners. If something doesn't pass the stupid test, no one is buying it. To force eight teams that the NCAA admits are better than the 20 seeded below them take part in a play-in game does not pass that test.

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As you may recall I proposed an 80-team event that would have eliminated this issue and actually improved the chances of these small school conferences actually advancing in the Big Dance. Under my plan, the four weakest teams would be seeded No. 20 in their respective regionals and would face a No. 5 seed in the first round.

Thus those schools will be facing a team ranked No. 17-20 instead of one of the top four schools in the country. They are still likely to lose, but the chance of upsets in the early rounds goes way up for the eight lowest seeds in the event.

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Since my 80-team tournament isn't happening here's my solution to handling the field of 68 and creating a combination of fairness of competition and tournament experience for the lesser teams.

There will be 16 sites for first and second round play. Twelve of the sites will have four teams (48), four of the sites will have five (20). At the five team sites we will have a single game on Thursday between the No. 16 and No. 17 seeds. They don't get shuffled off to Dayton. Instead they get to participate in the tournament experience and actually get a special features spot as the only game at that site that night. The No. 1 seeds get a bye and will play the winner of those games while the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds meet up at the same location.

This format creates a super cool quadruple header featuring the No. 1 seeds (assuming they win) on Monday, something CBS is bound to love. And it incorporates one of the core factors of my 80-team proposal; more sites for tournament play which means more exposure for the tournament throughout the country and more opportunities for cities to host NCAA action.

Whaddya think?

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