After weeks of speculation, which bordered on becoming an assumption, that the NCAA would expand the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee decided to recommend moving to only 68 teams.
The committee’s proposal goes to the NCAA Board of Directors, which will review it April 29. Considering that the expansion accompanies a new 14-year, $10.8 billion broadcasting deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting, the board almost certainly will pass the recommendation.
And then tournament purists can breathe a collective sigh of relief — for now.
The broadcasting format appears fairly set, with CBS and Turner Broadcasting splitting the tournament so that every game is available on one of four channels: CBS, TNT, TBS or truTV. However, the number of teams in the tournament could change. The NCAA is proposing the 68-team field for next season and could consider more expansion again next year.
So we might go through more expansion anxiety. But let’s not cross that bridge when we get there.
For next year, we know the field will essentially add three play-in games. We just don’t know which seeds will be up for grabs in those play-in games. There are two likely scenarios.
1. The eight weakest automatic qualifiers will decide the four No. 16 seeds.
2. The eight weakest at-large candidates will decide four No. 12 or 13 seeds.
Each scenario has its advantages and disadvantages.
In Scenario No. 1, the committee won’t have to worry as often about overloading segments of the brackets with teams from one conference. Plus this expansion would feel somewhat natural because we already has a play-in game in which the two weakest automatic qualifiers duel for the last No. 16 seed on the Tuesday before the first round.
However, Scenario No. 1 has some potentially unforeseen drawbacks. First, it punishes some non-power-conference champions that would have earned No. 15 seeds by dropping them into the play-in field. Second, it shifts other automatic qualifiers down the seeding chart. And that could hurt those teams’ chances of pulling off a first-round upset.
For example, Ohio found a way to win the Mid-American Conference championship as a No.-9 seed. The streaking Bobcats received a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament and pulled off one of the biggest shocks of the tournament when they beat No. 3-seed Georgetown. With expansion, Ohio would have been a No. 15 seed. Match ups will remain important, but it’s likely that teams that are just good enough to beat a No. 3 seed won’t be good enough to beat a No. 2 seed.
In Scenario No. 2, the bottom of the seeding chart remains unchanged. Automatic qualifiers receive their No. 15 or 16 bids as usual. Instead, the last four at-large teams must prove their worth by beating the teams that, in the past, would be the last four out. This scenario seems perfect from a competitive standpoint.
However, the logistics of making this scenario work could be tricky. Depending on which seeds the top non-power-conference champions earn, you could have a mixture of No. 12 and 13 seeds up for grabs in the play-in games. That shouldn’t matter, but it’s not as clean as saying that four play-in games lead to four No. 16 seeds.
In addition, committee members could have a harder time balancing the brackets. In this past tournament, the Big East sent eight teams to the field. If the conference sends two more through expansion, it would have 10 teams, which would make seeding them more challenging.
For as long as the tournament remains 68 teams, Scenario No. 2 is preferable. It would likely pit more nationally recognized, major-conference teams in the play-in games, which would be good for TV ratings. And that scenario wouldn’t punish automatic qualifiers from non-power conferences. Rather than add three more at-large bids, we should guarantee that all automatic qualifiers get to play in the field of 64 and force the weakest bubble teams to prove their merit.
And of course, as soon as the NCAA perfects the 68-team tournament, we’ll probably have to find a way to make 72, 80 or 96 teams work.