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 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 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 350-team women’s tournament could not, or should not, be administered in exactly the same way.
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 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 (see 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 is 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 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.