Thursday, February 4, 2010

Expanding March Madness is a Good Thing

BELATED CORRECTION: Wow, did I ever do the math wrong on this one. Actually, 32 teams would get a bye, the top 8 seed in each region. This changes things drastically.

There's enough talk about expanding the NCAA men's basketball tournament to 96 teams next year that I've already assumed it's a done deal.

As long as the four days wherein the field narrows from 64 teams to 16 teams continues to be the best sports weekend on the calender, they can add as many teams as they want to the tournament.

That shouldn't be a problem. The expansion will mean that each region will host 24 teams, with the 1st-12th seeds getting what amounts to an "opening round" bye. That means the dreaded 12/5 seeds match-up will still be played by two fresh teams. That match-up really is the heart and soul of the tournament. As long as the 12/5 games remain unchanged, I'm cool.

Since the tournament expanding to 64 teams in 1985, 12 seeds have upset 5 seeds roughly 33% of the time. There have only been two years -- 1988 and 2000 -- where no 12 seeds beat their 5 seed counterparts. Since 2001, 12 seeds have almost won 50% of their first round games. The odds are better that a 6 seed will advance, as opposed to a 5 seed, even though a 6 seed should theoretically face tougher competition.

The proposed expansion merely increases the play-in games to the lowest four seeds in each region. These teams rarely make it to the Sweet Sixteen and almost never advance beyond that point. Some people might argue that this eliminates the Cinderella stories from the tournament. On the other hand, playing that extra game might keep some teams in a winning rhythm.

I like the plan because it gives fans 16 additional opportunities for buzzer-beaters and the chance to see small schools play their hearts out for the chance to get crushed by a Kentucky or a Kansas. Admittedly, the play-in game hasn't been very exciting, but one could argue that this is because the game is usually played between two schools that made it through their conference tournaments on spunk and luck. There are always bubble teams that don't make the tournament that would likely make things more interesting. A bigger tournament will give the selection committee more to work with.

One last point: there are almost 350 Division I NCAA basketball schools today. If memory serves me correctly, there were closer to around 300 teams in 2000. I would imagine that when the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 there were considerably fewer schools. It might just be time to expand the tournament to reflect the growth in eligible teams and talent.

Yes, there is plenty of potential for the "opening round" to be awful and suck the energy out of the first two rounds of the tournament, but the tournament has made the adjustment once before and will likely do it again.

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