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ACC coaches want to expand NCAA tournament to 72 teams

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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.