Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Expanding the NCAA Tournament Maybe Isn't Such a Bad Idea

I can understand the sentiment that expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams is purely a money grab on the NCAA's part (and it probably is), and that changing the Tournament is unnecessary (it almost certainly is). But these are more emotional reactions than rational ones, and the more substantive criticisms of expansion are easily refuted.

The argument most often voiced against expanding the Tournament is that it will further dilute the importance of the regular season. I would argue that the opposite is true. With a 96-team field, the top 32 teams will receive byes into the round of 64, and obtaining one of those slots will be a very strong incentive for teams to play for throughout the season. In effect, this will create a double-bubble, and "Who gets a bye?" will be every bit as important to bracketologists as "Who gets in?"

Another argument against expansion is that it will make it less likely that the best team actually wins the National Championship. And while that's technically true, I would point out that the chances of the best team winning the championship in the current system are generally less than 25%. The only difference between the new and old systems would be in the first-round matchup, where instead of playing the MEAC or Patriot or Big South champions, the number 1 seeds would be forced to play either upper-tier Mid-Majors or middle-of-the-pack BCS teams.

The other big argument that's being mad is that there will be fewer chances for Cinderella-type upsets. As long as there's a committee doing the seeding, and as long as there are 18- to 22-year-old kids playing the games, there will be upsets. And, if anything, adding more teams and more games to the Tournament makes those upsets more likely to happen, not less.

None of this is to say that I'm 100% behind the idea of expanding the NCAA Tournament. Like most people, I think it's just fine the way it is. I've also got serious doubts about whether the NCAA would actually add the next 32 best teams instead of going the feel-good route and adding a bunch of mid-majors with high-but-empty winning percentages. But expanding the Tournament would mean more basketball--and more high-stakes basketball between evenly-matched teams--and that wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing.

Update: Just for fun, I decided to mock up a 96-team bracket based on the current TAPE standings. You can view/download/print it by clicking this sentence. It knocks down the argument that I've seen a few places that the bracket wouldn't fit on a single sheet of paper (thus making office pools and the like more difficult). And the more I look at the kind of matchups an expanded Tournament could provide in the first weekend, the more the idea is growing on me.

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