Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.
March Madness is again upon us, but the current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly. It is both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is that much more arbitrary and capricious.
I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But let’s not kid ourselves: “Arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve the lion’s share of tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions.
In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference because, if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.
[If you think about it, the entire bubble/Bracketology thing — as a media construct — is built around whether and which of these second-tier teams makes the tournament at whose expense. It defies logic that such hoo-hah surrounds a group of teams ranked 55-75 in the country, teams that will not win the title, almost certainly won’t make the Final Four, and may not even win a tournament game.]
So the play-in games are a result of haves making more money at the expense of have-nots. Even the participation of these power-conference also-rans (still haves in the financial sense) are meaningless to the overall competition. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in strategy was broached, we began moving inexorably toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most evolutionarily mature, most lucrative solution: An all-in 351-team NCAA basketball tournament.
That tipping point in 2001 should have been the NCAA’s cue to simply let everyone into the field, a la the Indiana high school basketball tournament, famous for having produced Hoosiers among other amazing tourney runs over the course of a century. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy shit that will inevitably stem from a 190-team college basketball play-in (our new Round 1) contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States of America.
Here’s how it all fits elegantly together, once enough university presidents, in their ivory tower wisdom, toss me the keys to this bus:
Step 1) The regular season ends by the close of February.
Step 2) All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire briefly to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, to be ranked by an agglomeration of metrics/polls, nos. 1 through 351. (For 2019 the NCAA has junked the R.P.I. ranking system for a “net value index” known as NET. But in this future context, who cares? Everyone gets in.) One of the great attractions of March Madness, perhaps the greatest of all, is the meting out of a champion based purely on game performance. Polls don’t matter. Seeds don’t really matter. By winning six games in a row, a deserving champion is invariably crowned. This dynamic is entirely preserved and indeed enhanced by the universal-bid system.
Step 3) Round 1 — comprising 95 games, pitting the no. 351 seeded team vs. no. 161, 350 vs. 162 and so on — begins. All Round 1 games are to be hosted by the higher-seeded school (holding games on campus rewards higher seeds, gives meaning to the regular season, and avoids potential scheduling conflicts at neutral sites). All Round 1 games are played the first Tuesday and Wednesday in March. Round 1 is elegant in its mayhem: It reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.
Step 4) Round 2 takes place the first Thursday and Friday in March. Those 256 teams play 128 second-round games, the higher seeded team always hosting, thus reducing the field to 128.
Step 5) The 64 games comprising Round 3 take place Saturday and Sunday, neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to 64,
Et voilá. From the close of these three rounds — which actually occupy less time than the ever-expanding frippery of so-called Championship Week — the NCAA tournament proceeds as any self-respecting, 64-team knockout competition would. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk — for every Division I team earns a berth. Bracketology? That irksome construct and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it like a noxious haze are similarly put out to pasture.
You may well inquire as to the fate of Championship Week. Let’s agree on something right now: We don’t need 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 with reams and reams of 2-hour content blocks.
In a 351-team tournament, every single Round 1 game would be more competitively consequential, more fun, and more lucrative than any championship week game (see there: we needn’t capitalize the phrase any longer; it’s already dead to me).
Have you noticed how championship week actually takes up to 10 days? It’s the reason March Madness now extends, nonsensically, into April. The 351 model solves this creeping calendar issue, too. With no championship week to accommodate, the regular season can end on the last day of February, clearing the decks for our new Round 1 to begin the following Tuesday.
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.
Most important, what remain aren’t the 64 most worthy teams as judged by some panel, power-rankings, play-in contests or one-off conference title games. They are the 64 teams still standing.
Anytime a truly brilliant, game-changing proposal like this one sees the light of day (!), we’re obliged to openly weigh the pros and cons.
Under this new format, here is what’s lost: championship week, an endless parade of largely meaningless games played out in largely empty arenas too cavernous for anything but a final. The National Invitation Tournament. Joe Lunardi’ss “Bracketology” brand would take a massive hit… That’s about it.
What is gained?
There is so much, we need bullets:
• Money — I think we’ve all 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 their various cable and streaming affiliates) will all 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. The rest 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 (quite logically, in a marketplace) in far more revenue and revenue opportunity.
Remember, our 351 Tourney doesn’t in any way affect the current system from the Round of 64 on down. All that stays in place.
Still, I hope you’ve noticed just how poorly attended these Round of 64 games truly are. Empty seats all over the place. Even Round of 32 games do not fill these big arenas. During championship week, major conference quarter- and semifinals (major, mid-major and otherwise) are even more sparsely attended.
Consider the 287 games we propose over the first three rounds of a 351-team competition: Because they are played on-campus (or the home-court venue designated by the higher-seeded host), they all sell out. Every single one, for 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 be highly lucrative, and that money is funneled directly to the schools, not the respective conferences. Consider the advertising sold/purchased during these 287 broadcasts. Think of the parking, the street vendors, the local bar and restaurant scenes. Cumulative remuneration to the airlines alone will markedly boost America’s gross domestic product.
So, don’t talk economics in defense of the current system. A 351-team format would blow its doors clean off their hinges.
• 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 two days. (In truth, all that would-be drama is conducted in the space of 36 hours, not 48.) Take that pure smorgasbord appeal, triple it, and you’ve effectively sized up the Round 1 mayhem of a 351-team approach.
Quadruple it for Round 2.
These first four days of competition will represent a truly insane spectacle of blowouts, nail-biters and upsets — played in packed gyms, all over the country. The third round will “only” double the size of the current Thursday/Friday schedule (the craziest 36 hours in basketball) and it will serve to answer/moot all the questions that pundits today spend weeks blathering about. Bubble teams? There are no bubble teams. Power rankings? Who gives a shit. Once the teams are seeded 1 through 351, seeds are more or less irrelevant.
• 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 intercollegiate competitions. Yes, there is a boatload of money involved. This 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).
[It is, of course, absurd and scandalously exploitative that “student-athletes”, the labor component in this capitalist equation, receive not one red cent of this revenue. But that is an argument for another day. However, this much should be said, because it’s obvious: If a 351 event were to generate money above and beyond what is generated today, by a 64-team tournament, there would be more to share with players.]
The beneficial alchemy of a 351-team tournament would be manifest in larger, broader ways. Perhaps counter-intuitively, these would disproportionately affect college basketball’s regular season — for the better.
Today the regular season is nearly devoid of meaning. Even a “big” January game, such as Duke-UNC, matters not one iota in the competitive sense, as both teams will invariably make the field of 68. For both teams, such a game is basically just one of 35 warm-up/exhibitions.
“Smaller” games pitting less-hegemonic programs against one another are meaningless, too, because unless some subjective polling of media or coaches (or some ranking algorithm) places them in the top 30, their NCAA aspirations 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 (10,530 of them, if we multiply 351 by 30), only a handful of regular-season games over the course of an entire season 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 (including these middling power conference teams), regular season conference competitions (and championships) 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 administrations, coaches and players, an SEC title mattered quite a lot. Ditto in the Big Sky or Ivy or Missouri Valley. Banners were raised and trophies bestowed. Local bragging rights were asserted. Chests were puffed out. These league titles used to matter for their own sake — and they will again when the mere carrot of NCAA tournament participation (and its attendant revenue) is removed.
Today, at every lower level of intercollegiate basketball where tournament-related revenue is irrelevant — where coaches aren’t the highest paid employees of the college, where schedules and student academic participation aren’t grossly perverted by the chase for revenue and tournament–enabled branding — conference play continues to have meaning outside the tournament context. In Divisions II and III, conferences are not created and abandoned as a means of jockeying for better chances at tournament berths. Schools aren’t bolting here and there to this conference or that. We see this dynamic in high school basketball, as well. There is no reason it won’t return to Division I basketball when everyone makes the tournament.
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, two storied border rivals, 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. For teams like 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 they know they can win, to better impress the NCAA selection committee.
However, when every team makes the tournament, it’s in everyone’s interest to pursue the most competitive schedule possible (to better prepare them for tournament play; to boost their RPI/seeding) and the most regional schedule possible — to save travel expense and serve fan interest, for folks who follow these teams dearly want them to square off with traditional, regional rivals during the regular season.
Here’s another sanguine 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.
There is obviously a group of players today who see their college careers as mere weigh stations on the path to NBA stardom. Regardless of NCAA tournament format, this relatively small cohort will continue congregate at elite programs that 1) provide superior NBA preparation, based mainly on the coach and his policy toward playing potentially one-and-done freshmen; and 2) guarantee NCAA tournament participation.
However, a 351-team tournament automatically delivers tournament participation to one and all — and will therefore influence a far larger number 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 1-2-3.
For those who see this as representing overly radical change — to a system that isn’t perfect but is clearly pretty darned fun — it’s important to recognize the scope of change the tournament has already undergone. Through 1974, only conference champions qualified. 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 8 playing for four spots in 2011.
Time for the next evolutionary step, I say.
The riches involved in tournament participation are real. There’s 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 completely 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.