351 image

Let’s take the gloves off and settle this, right here/right now, for the greater basketball good: Another bout of March Madness is nearly upon us and the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — begins with the worst sort of capricious, competitively arbitrary folly. From the moment the current play-in gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope got very slippery indeed. At first, just two small-conference champions squared off for the right to get boned, on 36-48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. Let’s skip over mere half measures, or further regression, and proceed straight to the ultimate solution: tournament berths for every last Division 1 program, all 351 of them.

Don’t freak out: Here’s how quickly and seamlessly it would work:

1) The regular season ends when February does. All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire briefly to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, where they wait on the tabulation of a final computer ranking — 1 through 351. In essence, the period now devoted to “Championship Week” is given over to a 287-game, three-round, six-day tournament that produces the familiar, final bracket of 64.

2) The opening round — comprising 95 games and held the first Tuesday & Wednesday in March — pits the team seeded 351st against the team seeded 161st. In between,  #162 takes on #350, and so on. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy shit that will inevitably stem from a 190-team Round I — contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States. Elegant in its mayhem, Round I rewards the top 160 with a bye (thus lending meaning to the our otherwise meaningless regular season) and quickly reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.

3) Round II takes place Thursday and Friday, whereupon those 256 remaining teams — the bye teams and the Tuesday/Wednesday winners — contest 128 games and symmetrically reduce the field to 128. Traditionally, the Thursday/Friday segment of NCAA Tournament week delivers 32 games and a dependably crazed bacchanal of buzzer-beaters, nail-biters, upsets and blowouts, all in the space of 36 hours. A universal-bid Thursday/Friday takes that spectacle and quadruples it.

4) The 64 games comprising Round lll, on Saturday and Sunday, would approximate a mere doubling of the traditional Thursday/Friday pandemonium, while neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to the recognizable 64. Sunday night the remaining teams — retaining their original seeds — are assigned opponents and regions in the traditional manner we’ve come to expect.

Rounds I, II and III would essentially form a massive, universal play-in bracket unto itself — producing more money in less time, via a more competitively honest framework than the current play-in scheme combined with the odious, so-called Championship Week. All 287 games are necessarily played on campus, at the higher-seeded school. This mechanism is critical because, in rewarding higher seeds, it assigns another, much needed element of meaning to the college basketball regular season. It also guarantees kick-ass atmosphere and avoids potential scheduling conflicts at neutral sites, while reducing site-rental and travel costs. There is no reseeding between rounds. The bracket holds its shape and schedule all week, meaning teams are locked into either a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, or a Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule.

What’s more, there is no good reason why a 351-team women’s tournament could not, or should not, be administered in exactly the same way, during the exact same time frame.

One of the great attractions of March Madness, perhaps the greatest of all, is the meting out of  champions based purely on game performance. Polls don’t matter. Bowl traditions don’t muck up the works. Ultimately, seeds don’t either. By winning six games in a row, a deserving champion is invariably crowned. The universal-bid system underlines, preserves and enhances this dynamic. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk. Crucially, the regular season is dramatically transformed, for the better, in myriad ways I detail below. The bloated frippery of conference tournaments is eliminated. Bracketology? That irksome construct — and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it — are similarly put out to pasture.


The original play-in scheme, instituted at the turn of the millennium, was shameful enough. The 8-team “First Four” we’ve endured since 2011 has proved that much more arbitrary and capricious. I wish I could tell you these “expansions” of the tournament were first undertaken in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But let’s not kid ourselves: In fact, let’s add a third descriptor, “mendacious,” because this peculiar arrangement was first advanced and expanded entirely in service of annually preserving tourney revenue and exposure for no more than a dozen would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans — at the expense small-conference champions. Today, the Atlantic Sun Conference title-winner is obliged to play-in against its Summit Conference counterpart because, if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some seventh- or eighth-place team from the Big Ten — a conference that will soon have 16 basketball members.

This is shameful. If you think about it, the entire bubble/Bracketology thing — as a media construct — is built around whether and which second-tier, major-conference teams make the tournament, at whose mid-major expense. It defies logic that such expansive hoo-hah fixates on a group of teams ranked 55-75 in the country, teams that will not win the title, almost certainly won’t make the Elite 8, and may not even win a tournament game. Accordingly and appallingly, play-in games have eventuated so these demonstrable haves might make more money — at the direct expense of have-nots. 

But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in component was introduced, we began the inexorable move  toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most evolutionarily mature, most lucrative solution: a pair of all-in, 351-team NCAA basketball tournaments. This format is nothing less than our national hoop destiny. It will generate way more money and fan interest. There’s no practical reason why all-in men’s and women’s tournaments cannot run concurrently.

Let’s agree on something else elemental: Championship Week sucks. We don’t need it. We’ve never needed it. Indeed, there is nothing more meaningless and contrived than this desultory, made-for-TV procession that serves no purpose but to supply sports-channel programmers/streamers with reams and reams of 2-hour content blocks. In a 351-team tournament, every single Round 1 game would prove more competitively consequential, more fun, and more lucrative than any championship week contest (see there: we needn’t capitalize the phrase any longer; it’s already dead to me).

Have you noticed how championship week, today, actually soaks up some 10-14 days? It’s the reason March Madness now extends, nonsensically (and way off-brand) into April. The 351 model solves this creeping calendar issue, too.  With no conference tournaments to accommodate, our new Round l begins the first Tuesday in March. Just 120 hours thereafter, at 6 p.m. on what we now refer to as Selection Sunday, the field will have been cleanly, fairly and competitively pared down to 64. No extension of the season. No more contrived, arbitrary, capricious play-in games. No more soul-sucking conference-tournament quarterfinals in empty arenas.

Most important, what remain aren’t the 64 most worthy teams as judged by some panel, power-ranking, play-in contrivance or one-off conference title game. They are the best 64 teams in the country because they’re still standing.


Anytime a truly brilliant, game-changing proposal like this one sees the light of day (!), we’re obliged to openly weigh its pros and cons. Under this new format, here is what’s lost: championship week; a procession of largely meaningless games played out in arenas too cavernous for anything but a final; live reaction shots of a few teams on Selection Sunday, as they learn their NCAA fates, in or out; and the National Invitation Tournament.

What is gained? There is so much, we need bullets:

• Money — Long ago we grasped what the NCAA Tournament’s guiding principle truly is, so let’s just go with it. The first three rounds of our 351 Tourney will feature 287 games — each one legitimately shaping the field, each one bearing directly on the crowning of a national champion. The broadcast rights for these games will command extraordinary value. ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC (and all their various cable and streaming affiliates) will pay top dollar to cherry-pick a full roster of games, leaving a range of regional and smaller hometown networks to broadcast games based on local interest, which will prove substantial. The rest will stream over the Internet, which may just explode. In other words, while championship week exists for purely monetary reasons, this new format will generate far more competitive meaning and interest, resulting in — quite logically, as befitting a capitalist marketplace — far more revenue and revenue opportunity.

• Madness — Even casual college basketball fans are drawn to the first two rounds of the existing tournament, purely for the craziness of those 32 games played over the course of the competition’s first 36 hours. Each of the six days inherent to the proposed 351-team tournament would utterly dwarf that 32-game spectacle. Each of the six days would represent a truly insane, diverse pageant of high-stakes hoops, played out in packed gymnasia, of all sizes, in every corner of the country.

• More Money —  Consider these 287 games in a different way: Because they are played on-campus, they all sell out. Every single one, because this is the biggest game of the year — regardless of how the season may have gone to that point. The gate and the broadcast rights will prove highly lucrative and that money is funneled directly to the schools themselves, not the respective conferences, whose compensation will derive from the final bracket of 64, as per usual. Consider the advertising sold/purchased during these 287 broadcasts and webcasts. Think of the parking, the street vendors, the local bar and restaurant scenes. These revenues, today, are concentrated in the single city hosting a conference tournament; in a 287 world, they would be spread around to 140 different communities. Cumulative remuneration to the airlines, over just six days, will identifiably boost America’s gross domestic product.

• Logic & Fairness — The stated charge of the NCAA is to serve the interests of all member colleges and universities, and each “student-athlete” who participates in these intercollegiate competitions. Yes, there is a boatload of money involved; newly implemented image & likeness revenues should also accrue to individual competitors, in proportion. This proposal merely underlines the NCAA’s responsibility to ensure that money is distributed broadly, in ways that aren’t arbitrary and capricious. A 351-team system is the most equitable way to carve up this money, while also creating a larger pie for the carving.


The beneficial alchemy of a 351-team tournament would be manifest in larger, broader ways. Perhaps counter-intuitively, these sanguine developments would disproportionately affect games pre-tournament competition. Today, the regular season is nearly worthless. Even a “big” January game pitting prestige programs matters not one iota in the competitive sense, as both teams will invariably make the field of 68. Such a game represents but one of 35 warm-ups/exhibitions.

“Smaller” games, pitting less-hegemonic programs against one another, are more meaningless still. Why? Because today, NCAA Tournament aspirations for any team ranked between 50 and 351 depend entirely on what they will do in their conference tournaments those first two weeks in March. In the universe of NCAA regular season games (some 10,530 of them, if we multiply 351 by 30), only a handful over the course of an entire winter might actually affect NCAA tournament fortunes. To the extent teams are affected at all, we’re talking a small pool of would-be, at-large candidates from major conferences.

In a 351 world, with NCAA tournament appearances assured for all, regular-season conference competitions will once again matter for their own sake. We know this to be true because before NCAA tournament qualification became the sole focus of Division I college administrations, coaches and players, an SEC title or a Missouri Valley title mattered quite a lot. Banners were raised and trophies bestowed. Local and regional bragging rights were annually asserted. Chests were puffed out. These league titles used to matter — and so they will again when the carrot of NCAA tournament participation and its attendant revenue is removed.

Even today, at every level of intercollegiate basketball where tournament-related revenue is irrelevant,  conference play along with regional/local rivalries continue to have meaning, outside the tournament context. In Divisions II and III, for example, teams still gun for NCAA tournament appearances, but regular-season conference play has maintained meaning. We see this dynamic in high school basketball, as well. There is no reason it won’t return to Division I basketball once everyone makes the tournament — espeially when it’s no longer necessary to bolt and shop for conferences based on potential tourney access.

Let’s extrapolate further: A 351 format will also return to college basketball a healthy regionalism that has been sadly diminished. Indiana and Kentucky, for example, storied border rivals for a century, haven’t played a regular-season game since 2011 and don’t have any future games planned. They compete in different conferences and have nothing to gain by playing each other “intersectionally”. A 351 model frees them up to schedule home-and-home games each and every year, because a loss does not doom their tournament chances or seeding —  indeed, the latter would likely be boosted by scheduling strong opposition, win or lose.

These situations exist everywhere. Here in New England, Boston College doesn’t schedule UMass because the Eagles, as members of a more powerful conference, have nothing to gain by playing regional rivals like the Minutemen — only something to lose. Nebraska and Oklahoma, two bitter rivals now fully estranged by the Huskers’ decision to join the Big 10, both stand to lose, if they lose. These entirely regional games aren’t worth the trouble under the current system. Nebraska is better off padding its schedule with games the Huskers know they can win. However, when every team makes the tournament, it’s in everyone’s interest to pursue both the most competitive schedule possible — to better prepare them for tournament play; to boost their overall RPI/seeding — and the most regional schedule possible, to save travel expense and better serve fan interest, because the regular season is the only opportunity to see these regional, non-conference rivalries.

Here’s another positive regional repercussion: Recruiting in a 351 world will be dominated to a lesser extent by the 30-40 A-list programs that routinely make the field of 68.

Obviously there exists today a small group of players who see their college careers as mere weigh stations on the path to NBA stardom. Regardless of NCAA tournament format, this cohort will continue congregate at elite programs that 1) guarantee NCAA tournament participation; and 2) provide superior NBA preparation, based mainly on the coach, his/her NBA/WNBA prep skills, and their policies toward playing potentially one-and-done freshmen.

Because a 351-team tournament automatically delivers tournament participation to one and all, it will therefore influence a far larger segment of A- and B-level high school players to attend less heralded college programs closer to home — because participation in March Madness and its attendant exposure are assured. Over time this will better distribute talent throughout Division I basketball and ultimately enhance the competitiveness of Rounds I, II and III, to say nothing of the regular season schedule.

Many will view this proposal as representing overly radical change to a system that isn’t perfect, but is clearly pretty darned fun. Those folks should recognize the scope of change the tournament has already undergone. Through 1974, only conference champions qualified, and most of those were based on conference win/loss records, not conference tournaments. At-large bids were introduced in 1975, when the field expanded to 32. In 1985, the field doubled in size. Another four teams were added, along with the play-in apparatus, in 2001. It expanded to eight schools playing for four spots in 2011.

Time for the next evolutionary step, it says here.

The riches involved in tournament participation are real. There’s no going back in this respect. Indeed, the number of Division I programs has grown steadily and will likely continue to grow — as more and more schools seek a portion of that revenue and exposure. An all-in tournament doesn’t merely distribute revenues more broadly. It is entirely elastic. It doesn’t matter how many Division I teams there are. One round and we’re down to 256. You wanna change conferences? Maybe opt out of a ridiculous conference commitment made in 2007, out of abject greed? Knock yourself out. When everyone’s invited into the pool, the water’s fine. Better than fine.