Fixing the NCAA Basketball Tournament

The NCAA basketball tournament is as close to the perfect sporting event as you’re going to get.  Three weeks, 64 (er…65, no wait, 68) teams all playing down to get 6 (ok, or 7) wins before anyone else can.  The Thursday and Friday of the first weekend are perhaps the two finest days of sports in the country – 2 days, 16 teams each, with gambling opportunities aplenty.

But it’s not perfect yet.

See, college football claims that their regular season matters more than any other, and they’re absolutely right (that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a playoff, but that’s a discussion for another day).  College basketball, on the other hand, requires that a team only have a good week (or 3, or 4…I’ll explain further) to find themselves competing for one of those pretty NCAA plaques.

And the reason is those vile conference tournaments.

It happens every year.  A team that’s had a sub-par regular season and otherwise wouldn’t find themselves in the bracket goes on a 4-day run to win their conference tournament and knocks out a perfectly deserving team (likely one that played in a smaller conference and could use the exposure).  We’re 4 days into conference tournament week and we’ve already seen a 15-20 Liberty team go on such a run to knock out a bubble team.  And keep in mind, they’re 15-20 after their tournament run – they went in at 11-20.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun story, but no one’s going to convince me that Liberty belongs in the tournament.  The only conference in Division I that doesn’t hold one is the Ivy League, who actually breaks a tie at the end of the regular season by having a tiebreaker game if necessary.  That’s pretty cool, but unfortunately, I’m going to kill that cool little tradition.  Knock down tradition for a better system is what sports is all about in the 21st century.

The problem is that these conference tournaments are all massive cash grabs, and if we’ve learned anything through conference realignment, it’s that college sports is all about money (well that and institutional slavery, but let’s not pretend we’re going to fix everything today).

The solution?  A bigger NCAA tournament.  And no more conference tournaments.

The NCAA tournament currently has 68 teams.  Eight teams – 4 playing for 2 16 seeds and 4 playing for 2 seeds somewhere between 12-14 play on the Tuesday before the tournament “starts” (I know technically these are the first round games, but let’s not kid ourselves, they’re play in games).  After that, it’s a simple 64-team bracket.  Remarkably, that’s not enough.

So how do we do it?  It’s really pretty simple.

Eliminate Conference Tournaments

Look, I’m a Michigan State fan.  The conference tournament has been the bane of my existence for quite some time (unless we win, then it’s awesome!).  The fact remains that in the “Big 6” conferences – Big 10, Big East, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 – the tournament only serves to get a team in that doesn’t belong (well, and to cram a bunch of fans paying to watch a bunch of basketball over 4 days and give ESPN a week’s worth of programming).  Worse is the smaller conferences who get a single bid.  Liberty finished 6 games behind 2 different teams who finished 12-4 in conference.  The kids on those teams are going home because they ran into a hot team or had a bad night.  Three months of work goes down the drain because of 1 bad night.

So my solution: every conference gets 2 bids.  Eliminating the conference tournament leaves basically a week of free games for the conference, which equates to an extra home game for each team.

I’m sure I’m one of the few people who hates conference tournaments, but you can’t tell me that taking the actual 2 best teams from a conference to the tournament is worse than taking a team that went 15-20.

So last year, there were 19 conferences that only had 1 bid.  We’ve just added 19 teams to the bracket.

Modify the NIT

The NIT used to be an extremely prestigious tournament.  But after opening up the tournament to non-conference champions in the ’70s, the NIT has gone downhill and is now largely irrelevant.  Sure, it provides recruiting opportunities for teams who didn’t make the tournament, but really it’s a consolation prize that no one cares about.

But we’re not eliminating the NIT entirely.  We’re merging it with the NCAA tournament.  After the Final Four has been determined, the NIT will be played between teams who have been eliminated from the tournament.  It will be played either by the 4 losers in the Elite 8, or the highest seeded teams to have been eliminated from the tournament.

Expanding the Field

We’ve now added 19 automatic conference bids and (theoretically) 32 NIT bids.  However, there is some overlap, so we’re expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams.  The tournament still starts on Tuesday, but now there will be 8 games each on the Tuesday and Wednesday games prior to the “normal” beginning of the tournament.  The games will be played at the same sites of the round of 64.  Teams seeded 1-8 will get a bye into the round of 64.  Teams seeded 9-24 will need to win 7 games to win the tournament (those 8/9 seedings will obviously become much more important).

Reseeding the Brackets

A few years back the tournament changed so that the top seeds were ranked, and therefore the #1 overall seed would (theoretically) play #4 in the Final Four, and #2 would play #3.  Realistically, the better option would’ve been to reseed the Final Four when those teams have been determined, but billions of dollars were at stake in tournament brackets and computerized pools weren’t sophisticated enough at the time to handle that reseeding.

(You’ll never convince me that this isn’t the reason the tournament isn’t reseeded.)

Now, much as I love a good 8/12 match-up in the Sweet Sixteen…wait, I hate a 12/13 match-up in the Sweet 16.  It’s fun that one of them will get that far, but more often than not the winner of that game will be the sacrificial lamb to a better team in the Elite 8.

While it’s not feasible to reseed the teams going from the first round to play the teams who have the byes, it is feasible to do it after every weekend.  Regional brackets will be reseeded so that the top seeds will play the bottom seeds.  Last year, this would’ve seen the following:

  • South Regional: 1 vs. 10, 3 vs. 4 (was 1 vs. 4, 3 vs. 10)
  • West Regional: 1 vs. 7, 3 vs. 4 (1 vs. 4, 3 vs. 7)
  • East Regional: 1 vs. 6, 2 vs. 4 (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 6)
  • Midwest Regional: 1 vs. 13, 2 vs. 11 (no change)

The Final Four wouldn’t have changed last year, but based on my experience (i.e., what I can remember in my head), this is a rarity and not the norm (remember 8th seeded Butler playing 11 seed VCU for a chance to go to the national title game?).

But wait, what about all those brackets?  How can we gamble all this money on the tournament if we don’t know how the brackets are going to  look at the end of the weekend?  Well, it’s real simple.  Every person needs to have their picks in by noon of the first game on Thursday (because no one cares about the Tuesday games).  Well, it’s the same thing, only this time, you need to have your brackets for the first week of the tournament in by tip-off Tuesday.  Then, after we’re down to 16 teams and the brackets have been reseeded, players make new picks and have to have them in by tip-off of the Sweet 16 games.  Same deal with the Final Four.

Now, you tell me you wouldn’t rather watch that as opposed to what we’ve got now?

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