Keep up to date on everything happening with your favorite college basketball team with live scores, team schedules and alerts to all the new content for whoever it is that you follow.
This isn’t just for college basketball, mind you.
The NBC Sports Scores app brings you extensive coverage of the NBA, the NHL, the NFL, Major League Baseball, college football and, of course, all of our Premier League content. It is the only app you need — and the only app you could ever want — to stay on top of breaking news and sharp analysis of whatever sport it is that you lone.
So go and download the app now.
NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga
Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.
While the West Coast Conference can boast a national title contender in Gonzaga, the goal for the league is to see more than just one team make waves nationally.
After a run of four straight season in which at least two teams reached the NCAA tournament, the 2017-18 season was the second in the last three in which the WCC has been a one-bid league.
Turning things around in that regard will largely be the responsibility of BYU and Saint Mary’s, which comes as no surprise even with the latter having lost four starters from last season.
Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s enter the 2018-19 season as the headliners in the WCC, with San Diego and San Francisco appearing to be the teams closest to the conference’s “big three.”
And with there being a host of talented players in this league who don’t play for Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s, that should make for some fun winter nights along the west coast.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Gonzaga’s flirtation with the Mountain West prompts changes
While the conference realignment wave at the beginning of this decade was largely influenced by football, college basketball has seen some of its power programs (that don’t sponsor football) make moves as well. At the very least Gonzaga considered a move itself, with there being “exploratory” conversations in February between athletic director Mike Roth, basketball coach Mark Few and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Ultimately no move was made, with Gonzaga remaining in the WCC and the conference making some changes to its schedule.
The conference schedule has gone from 18 to 16 games, so the true round-robin format is gone. For the programs expected to be at the top of the league that should mean at least one less game against a projected conference bottom-feeder, which could have a positive impact on the strength of schedule and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) numbers that are used to by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
The conference tournament has also changed, with the top two seeds receiving a bye to the semifinals. There are also other changes that will go into effect in the future with regards to non-conference scheduling, and the moves (plus the likely loss of earned NCAA tournament revenue had the school left the conference) were enough to satisfy Gonzaga. The WCC dodged a bullet this past spring.
2. Mark Few’s Bulldogs looks like a national title contender
Focusing on the action on the court, Gonzaga is a Top 5 team nationally in the eyes of many. Three starters are back from a team that won 32 games, the WCC regular season and tournament titles, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18. And the returning starters don’t include junior forward Rui Hachimura, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and was one of college basketball’s best reserves.
Guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. are also back, as are junior forward/center Killian Tillie and sophomore forward Corey Kispert. Add to this a talented crop of newcomers, which includes transfer Geno Crandall (North Dakota) and Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and freshmen Filip Petrusev and Greg Foster Jr., and Gonzaga has enough talent and experience to be a national title contender.
That being said, the Bulldogs will be without Tillie for much of non-conference play as he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. That puts more pressure on players such as Kispert, Clarke and Petrusev in the front court, as they’ll be tested by a schedule that includes games against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.
3. BYU sets its sights on top spot
With regards to its performance within the conference, the 2017-18 season was BYU’s worst as a member of the WCC since joining in 2011. Dave Rose’s Cougars posted an 11-7 mark in conference play, finishing five games behind second-place Saint Mary’s, and after a loss to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final BYU finished its season in the Postseason NIT. BYU’s looking to take a step forward in 2018-19, and with five starters back the Cougars have the pieces needed to do just that.
Leading the way is junior forward Yoeli Childs, a first team All-WCC selection who averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season. The 6-foot-7 Childs, who also blocked 1.8 shots per game, shot better than 54 percent from the field and will once again be one of the conference’s best players. Also back in Provo are guards TJ Haws, Jashire Hardnett and Nick Emery, who averaged 13.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 2016-17, and senior forward Luke Worthington. Reserves such as Dalton Nixon and Zach Seljaas will provide the depth for a talented group that could be the team best equipped to challenge Gonzaga.
4. Saint Mary’s looks to replace three key starters
Saint Mary’s had a successful 2017-18 season, winning 30 games and finishing conference play with a 16-2 record. But that overall win total wasn’t enough to get the Gaels into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Now Randy Bennett will have to account for the loss of three starters from that team, most notably one of the best big men in college basketball in Jock Landale. Sophomore guards Jordan Ford, who averaged 11.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, and Tanner Krebs (7.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back to lead the way.
But after those two Saint Mary’s will be looking for contributions from newcomers and players who played sparingly in 2017-18. Redshirt junior forward Kyle Clark appeared in just three games before undergoing knee surgery, and senior center Jordan Hunter averaged just over seven minutes per game in 32 appearances. Graduate transfer Aaron Menzies, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game at Seattle last season, will be a key newcomer for the Gaels as will redshirt sophomore forward Malik Fitts (7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2016-17 at South Florida). Saint Mary’s has a lot of new faces but the expectations remain high for a program that hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games in a season since 2006-07.
5. Pepperdine and San Diego have new head coaches
There were two head coaching changes in the WCC this past spring, and both hires are familiar faces to those who follow the league. Pepperdine, which let Marty Wilson go after seven seasons, hired Lorenzo Romar to lead its program. Prior to head coaching stops at Saint Louis and Washington, Romar, who last season served as associate head coach at Arizona, spent three seasons at Pepperdine. After his 1996-97 team won just six games, Romar led the Waves to 17 and 19-win seasons before moving on to SLU.
As for San Diego, its circumstances differ from those that prompted the change at Pepperdine. Lamont Smith resigned in early March after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, but he was never charged. Stepping into the head coaching role is Sam Scholl, another USD alum who served as acting head coach for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Of the two new head coaches Scholl is better positioned to win immediately, with San Diego returning its top four scorers from last year’s 20-win squad including first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro.
PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
One of college basketball’s best reserves last season, Hachimura moves into a starring role for the Bulldogs in 2018-19. In 2017-18 the 6-foot-8 Hachimura shot 56.8 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the foul line with an effective field goal percentage of 57.7. With Gonzaga needing to account for the departure of Johnathan Williams III, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding as a senior, Hachimura will even more opportunities to put up quality numbers offensively. And with Killian Tillie out of the lineup for the time being, Gonzaga will need Hachimura to take the next step in his growth as a player and NBA prospect.
THE REST OF THE ALL-WCC FIRST TEAM
Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco: As a junior the 5-foot-11 Ferrari averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, ranking tied for fifth in the conference in the latter statistical category.
Zach Norvell, Gonzaga: As a freshman Norvell, who redshirted in 2016-17, averaged 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. And if Gonzaga needs a big shot late in a game, there’s a decent chance that the fearless Norvell will be the one letting fly.
Yoeli Childs, BYU: In averaging 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, Childs increased his scoring average by 8.3 points per game from his freshman to sophomore season. While a similar increase may not occur in 2018-19, there’s no denying the junior’s status as one of the WCC’s best players.
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: Due to the aforementioned stress fracture in his ankle, the 6-foot-10 Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg in 2017-18) will be out for approximately eight weeks. But when on the floor the versatile junior is a key cog in the Gonzaga attack, due to his ability to play either in the paint or away from the basket offensively (58.0 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from three).
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
KJ Feagin, Santa Clara
TJ Haws, BYU
James Batemon, Loyola Marymount
Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego
The pick here is Saint Mary’s sophomore guard Jordan Ford (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg in 2017-18), due in large part to the fact that the Gaels will need him to break out given the team’s personnel losses. As a freshman Ford shot 50.8 percent from the field, 44.3 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line, doing so on just over eight field goal attempts per game. Look for Ford to be safety into double figures in shot attempts, and he’s skilled enough to not take a step back from an efficiency standpoint.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
No names this time around. With Pepperdine making its move in the spring, replacing Marty Wilson with Lorenzo Romar, there isn’t a coach that enters the 2018-19 season under a considerable amount of pressure to produce a big year.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The WCC has managed to be a multi-bid conference, with BYU joining Gonzaga.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
Seeing if Gonzaga can reach the Final Four for the second time in the last three seasons.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
November 6, BYU at Nevada
November 19-21, Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational (vs. Illinois, 11/19)
November 24, Harvard at Saint Mary’s
December 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
December 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
1. GONZAGA: Gonzaga’s the clear favorite to win the WCC, even with the loss of Tillie for the next eight weeks. His absence will be felt during non-conference play, as the Bulldogs have matchups with Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to their appearance in the Maui Invitational to navigate. That being said, Mark Few’s team is loaded with talent from guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. on down to an All-America candidate in Rui Hachimura. And newcomers such as transfer Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall, who averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.6 apg at North Dakota last season, and freshman big man Filip Petrusev should be impact additions.
2. BYU: Of course the returns of Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws will give the Cougars a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. What will also help is the return of guard Nick Emery, who withdrew from school last November amid an investigation into his possibly receiving impermissible benefits from a booster. Emery, who averaged 14.7 points per game in his first two seasons at BYU, will have to miss BYU’s first nine games this season. When on the floor he gives BYU another quality perimeter scorer, which is needed due to the loss of leading scorer Elijah Bryant.
3. SAINT MARY’S: Three of the top four scorers from last season’s team have moved on in Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar, with sophomore Jordan Ford being the lone returnee. Ford could be in line for a big 2018-19 season given the combination of those personnel losses and his skill set. Fellow sophomore guard Tanner Krebs, who made 29 starts last season, should also be a factor and the same can be said of transfers Aaron Menzies and Malik Fitts. While the Gaels have some questions to answer, they should once again be a top three team in the WCC.
4. SAN FRANCISCO: After winning 20 games in Kyle Smith’s first season at the helm, San Francisco won 22 games and reached the championship series of the CBI in 2017-18. All five starters, including first team All-WCC point guard Frankie Ferrari, return from a team that despite the strides made last season still has room for growth. San Francisco was the last team to crack the BYU/Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s hold on the top three spots in the WCC standings, finishing tied for second in 2013-14, and the Dons could very well pull off this feat again.
5. SAN DIEGO: The Toreros reached the 20-win mark for just the fourth time in the program’s Division I history last season, and there’s a decent chance that the count increases to five in 2018-19. San Diego’s top four scorers, led by redshirt senior forward and first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro, return to play for first-year head coach Sam Scholl.
6. PACIFIC: The Tigers have made strides in Damon Stoudamire’s first two seasons as head coach, with the overall win total improving by three games (11 in 2016-17 to 14 last season) and the conference win total improving by five (from four to nine). While there are eight newcomers to work into the program, Pacific welcomes back three of its top five scorers in guards Roberto Gallinat and Kendall Small and forward Jahlil Tripp.
7. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Lions boast one of the WCC’s best individual talents in senior guard James Batemon, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game in his debut season at LMU. He’s one of four starters back for head coach Mike Dunlap, and given the talent and experience on this roster it’s likely that the Lions take a step forward after last year’s 11-20 finish.
8. SANTA CLARA: Senior guard KJ Feagin lead the Broncos in both points and assists last season, earning first team All-WCC honors as a result. He’ll once again lead the way for Herb Sendek’s group, with sophomore forward Josip Vrankic looking to take a step forward after averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman.
9. PEPPERDINE: Lorenzo Romar begins his second stint at Pepperdine with anything but an empty cupboard, as the top three scorers from last season’s team (Kameron Edwards, Colbey Ross and Eric Cooper Jr.) all back. While that is a positive, both Edwards (nine games) and Cooper (13) missed time due to injury so it goes without saying that they’ll need to remain healthy if Pepperdine is to take a step forward.
10. PORTLAND: Turning things around at Portland hasn’t been easy for Terry Porter, whose teams have won 11 and 10 games in his first two seasons at the helm. Four of Portland’s top five scorers from a season ago, led by sophomore guard Marcus Shaver and redshirt junior wing Josh McSwiggan, are back and Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark is eligible after sitting out last season.
Testing The Waters: Donte DiVincenzo, Kevin Huerter star at NBA Draft Combine
The fact of the matter is that for all the pomp and circumstance, the NBA Combine is, essentially, about getting face-to-face interviews with these prospects while also landing definitive results for height, length, athletic testing and medicals.
Those results, when they pop, can help — or hurt — a player’s standing.
That said, there is still plenty that can be taken away from the 5-on-5 games that are played.
For players from smaller schools, it’s a chance to prove themselves against a higher level of competition. Think Larry Nance Jr., who wound up as a first round pick out of Wyoming.
For players that are stuck in a rigid system in college, the combine is a chance to show what they can do when they are no longer reined in. Kyle Kuzma is the perfect example of this.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the players that are still testing the waters and how they performed in Chicago this week.
DONTE DIVINCENZO, So., Villanova: The star of the national title game did not disappoint at the combine, in either the 5-on-5 play or in the athletic testing. Let’s start with the latter, where DiVincenzo registered a 42″ max vertical — tops at this year’s combine — and a 34.5″ standstill vertical to go along with a top five time in the lane agility drill. His size and length (6-foot-4.5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan) is a bit of a concern, but DiVincenzo’s effort stood out during the games. The competitiveness and toughness is there, as is the shot-making ability. Already trending towards being a late first round pick, DiVincenzo probably solidified his standing at the combine. At this point I would be very surprised if he opted to return to school for his junior year.
KEVIN HUERTER, So., Maryland: We’ve been talking about Huerter as an under-the-radar prospect this spring, and he showcased why at the combine. Posting solid athletic testing numbers (he was top ten is all of the sprint drills and measured out at a 38″ max vert), Huerter proved himself to be a 6-foot-7 shot-making wing with an impressive feel; the 3.4 assists his averaged this season wasn’t a fluke. There’s a real chance that Huerter would be a late-first round pick should be stay in the draft, but there is a growing sentiment in NBA circles that he may want to return to school to try and play his way into the lottery of the weaker 2019 draft. If he adds strengths and proves himself to be an above-average Big Ten defender, that’s not an impossibility.
JOSH OKOGIE, So., Georgia Tech: We didn’t even mention Okogie when discussing which players had the most on the line heading into the combine, and that was clearly a mistake. Okogie may have proven himself worthy of an early-second round pick, if not late-first. The 6-foot-4.5 wing measured out at a 7-foot wingspan and finished with the fastest sprint time and the second-fastest shuttle run. A member of John Calipari’s Team USA U-19 team last summer, Okogie showcased his impressive defensive versatility during the combine games which, when combined with the 38 percent shooting from deep (173 attempts) in his two seasons in Atlanta, makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect in a league where defensively versatile wings that can space the floor are in high demand.
*(UPDATE: Okogie signed with an agent on Monday.)
It’s probably worth noting here that Huerter won’t turn 20 until August 27th and Okogie won’t turn 20 until September 1st. DiVincenzo is 19 months older than him. Hell, both of them are younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr. That’s a massive amount of time on the development curve.
CODY and CALEB MARTIN, Nevada: For both Martin twins, the combine made it looks like their incredible season with the Wolf Pack had more to do with the Mountain West than their future as NBA players. Caleb — the scorer — could not find a rhythm on that end while Cody — the jack-of-all-trades — didn’t exactly appear to be great at anything. The twins turn 23 in September, just received their degrees and Nevada would have 15 scholarship players if they return. They seem to be out the door, although that does not mean they’re headed for the NBA.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Physically, Battle tested out well, measuring nearly 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and solid athletic testing numbers. But that was never the worry with Battle. His issue is that he was an inefficient, high-volume scorer that played predominantly with the ball in his hands at Syracuse. He needed to prove that he could a) play off the ball and b) shoot better than what his numbers were with the Orange. He did neither, and while I’m not sure he necessarily hurt himself, he did not play his way into the first round. If he remains in the draft, he’ll likely end up a second round pick.
BRIAN BOWEN, South Carolina: Bowen did not appear to be a draftable player during the games at the combine, which is more or less what we thought of him prior to sitting out the 2017-18 season after he was caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. This is a nightmare scenario for him. He has until May 30th to decide if he should just get started on a pro career, whatever level that ends up being at, or returning to school and hoping the NCAA will clear him.
JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky: Vanderbilt pulled out of the combine prior to the start, which might have more to do with his health and controlling the flow of information over his medical testing than anything else. For a player that has had a myriad of lower left leg injuries over the years — he missed the first 17 games and the final six games of his freshman season, as well as much of the summer prior to his senior season in high school — he’s going to have a difficult decision to make in regards to turning pro. He’s not a first rounder, but just how long is his athletic career going to be given these health issues?
THEY ARE WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards was a late addition to the combine as other players dropped out. He’s more of a scorer than he is a point guard at this stage, and some of his struggles offensively at the combine showed that. He could use another year where he’ll be asked to do it all for Purdue offensively.
OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: We know what Spellman is. He’s a 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a lethal three-point shooting stroke. We also know that he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since he was in high school. At the combine, Spellman checked in at 253 pounds with 13.75 percent body fat, still managing to post a 35.5″ max vertical at that weight. Put another way, there is still improvement that can be made on his body and, in theory, his athleticism. That keeps teams interested, but he certainly didn’t play his way into being a first rounder.
BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: Fernando proved himself a very large human (6-foot-9.75, 7-foot-4.25) but beyond that, his instincts as a basketball players were not quite there. In an NBA era where paint-locked big men are becoming useless, Fernando seems to fall into that category. If anything, what may keep him in the draft is his guardian’s connection to Kansas big Silvio De Sousa and the FBI investigation into college basketball.
UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: His 7-foot-7 wingspan is enough to make NBA GMs salivate, but that may be the only NBA-ready skill that the big fella has. He’s a non-shooter — career 40.6 percent from the free throw line — and his inability to defend on the perimeter was exposed by Villanova in the Final Four. He’s a late-second round pick at best.
SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The passion and the energy that Konate played with all season long was on full display at the combine as well. He’s a big, burly 6-foot-7.25 shot-blocker with a 7-foot wingspan and a better-than-you-think shooting stroke, but he didn’t do much to prove himself as more than a second round pick.
P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Physically, Washington doesn’t profile all that different that Spellman, who is slightly taller with a slightly longer wingspan and 30 extra pounds of weight he can stand to lose. The difference? Spellman is a very good shooter. The was time we saw Washington, who shot 5-for-21 from three as a freshman, he was missing 12 of his 20 free throws in a 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16. He’s already said he wants a first round guarantee to remain in the draft, and if teams didn’t rate him as a first rounder prior to the combine, I’m not sure anything happened that would change their minds.
JAYLEN HANDS and KRIS WILKES, UCLA: The most notable thing that happed with these two at the combine was that Hands, ironically enough, finished with the smallest hands at the event. He did, however, show some point guard instinct and fight defensively. There’s no guarantee he gets drafted, and the same can be same for Wilkes, who at least fits the profile of a versatile wing. Their decision essentially comes down to whether or not they think playing another year for Steve Alford will actually help their chances of getting into the first round in 2019.
ACC coaches want to expand NCAA tournament to 72 teams
At the ACC spring meetings this week, the conference’s basketball coaches made some recommendations for rule changes that would have a pretty big impact on the way that the game is played at the college level.
Among other things, they suggested moving the three-point line back (yes!), widening the lane (yes!), resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound (yes!) and sticking with halves instead of changing to four quarters (booooo).
The recommendation that is going to get the most headlines, however, is the suggestion that the NCAA tournament should expand from 68 to 72 teams, with a pair of regional First Fours because, apparently, a far greater percentage of football teams go to bowl games than basketball teams go to the NCAA tournament.
This is dumb for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the NIT, the CBI and the CIT exist, or that only four college football teams actually go to the tournament that determines a national champion. Ask UCF about that. The rest of bowl season is simply a series of glorified scrimmages that creates revenue for the people that wear suits and that degenerates love to gamble on.
But that idea is also ridiculous because it’s simply coaches riding for coaches. The truth is that these high major guys know that simply getting an invite to the NCAA tournament is the kind of thing that can earn them a contract extension or keep their bosses from firing them a year earlier than they would otherwise, and creating four more at-large bids means that there is the opportunity for four more coaches to get — or keep — themselves paid.
Personally, I am not married to the idea that the NCAA tournament has to remain at 68 teams — but that comes with one, simple caveat: The additions to the tournament field come in the form of regular season champions at the mid-major level, not middling high-major programs that couldn’t quite crack .500 in their league.
Here’s an idea that I’ve been chewing on for a while, one that I think would be great for all levels of the game and put more of an emphasis on the regular season:
Expand the field to 76 teams, give automatic bids to both the regular season and tournament champs for every conference.
Guarantee that teams that win both the regular season and the tournament title for their respective conference is able to avoid having to play in one of the 12 play-in games.
Those 12 play-in games would be played for the right to be a 14, 15 or 16 seed, and they would be held between the 24 teams that weren’t dual-league champs rated the lowest in the Selection Committee’s seed list, whether that means they only won a regular season title, a tournament title or were an at-large bid.
The number of at-large teams in the field would be fluid. With Wichita State out of the Missouri Valley, there are now essentially 22 leagues where the regular season champ isn’t all-but guaranteed to be an at-large bid. In the last four season, an average of 11 of those conference tournaments were won by someone other than the league’s regular season champ, which means that, on average, there would have been 33 mid-major automatic bids to the Big Dance under these rules and 43 bids available to the top ten conferences and, essentially, 33 at-large bids available. That would be down three from what it currently is, meaning that three of the thoroughly mediocre bubble teams that get in every year would miss out, on average.
This would do a couple of things that I think would make the tournament a better product.
For starter’s, it would give us two more days of wall-to-wall tournament games, meaning that the Tuesday and the Wednesday of the first weekend of the tournament feature an endless amount of play-in games on TV. As gambling on sports becomes more popular, this just means that there is more inventory to be able to cash in on.
It would also ensure that the best mid-major teams in the country — the most likely cinderellas — would be in the tournament after steam-rolling their league. As it stands, we miss out on so many great mid-major teams getting their shine in March because someone they beat twice during the regular season gets hot during one four-day stretch. We all lamented how screwed Middle Tennessee State was this year when they didn’t get a bid to the Big Dance. This model gives them that bid.
Then there is the added bonus that Championship Week becomes that much more insane. If your favorite team is on the bubble, you’ll be locked into all of those mid-major tournament games, because every top seed that loses is a bubble that bursts. That would be amazing, like taking the insanity of March and forcing it to shotgun an old Four Loko.
Now, this idea isn’t exactly perfect. Unbalanced scheduling means that the “best” team in a given conference might not end up being the regular season champ. It also creates a clear and obvious incentive for a conference to rig their conference tournament against the league champ; getting two teams into the tournament increases the odds of getting a win-share for the league, as does having those two teams play a play-in game opponent as opposed to, say, a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed.
It also moves us further and further away from the bracket being able to fit on a single, 8 X 11.5 piece of paper. But honestly, when was the last time you filled out a bracket that wasn’t online?
I know that this idea will never gain any real traction because the people in power — the people at the high major level — are the ones that would be hurt the most by this, but I do think this is the best way to make the tournament as interesting and as fair as possible.