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Shrinking the NCAA Basketball Tournament

College basketball isn’t something I care about deeply, partly because the college basketball program I grew up following (Nebraska) isn’t very good. I like March Madness, although I don’t make a point to fill out a bracket every year. I don’t write this post in bad will, but I assert a common point: the quality of college basketball is not as great as it was fifteen to twenty years ago because of how quickly stars bolt to the NBA. That’s not the fault of the schools that care about basketball: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina are always interesting, and put out great shows on game day. But March Madness has diminished, and I have unconventional solution.

Cut the NCAA Tournament to 32 teams.

Such a solution would go against the nature of college basketball, a sport whose pundits want to make the selection committee cry because of the last five teams left out of the Tournament, most of which haven’t beaten a good team on the road or scheduled hard enough. College basketball’s inclusive mentality (the polar opposite of football) hasn’t help the sport gain more public support, and if anything, the tournament is going to get bigger rather than smaller. But let me make a case for it.

Play a 32-team NCAA Tournament over two weekends, keeping the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday and Wednesday-Friday-Sunday format that used now with the First Four. The Final Four will be the next weekend. Around this tournament, have a bunch of smaller, consolation, 8-team tournaments that wrap up by the Sunday/Monday/Tuesday that the NCAA Elite Eight wraps up. These 8-team tournaments can be considered the “minor bowls” of the college basketball postseason, and pod seeding can keep teams closer to home. The Final Four can be played in the same manner it always is.

Benefits: More drama in late regular season games. This is the most obvious reason to reduce the NCAA Tournament. Yes, there is currently drama among the last teams in, but the debate is always about who is better, the ninth team in the ACC or the seventh team in the Big 12. Reducing the tournament would make a February matchup between the second and third teams in a particular conference all the more meaningful, as the looser likely would be out.

:Eliminate Automatic Bids and Get a Better Field. There would have to be a new selection process, and no disrespect to Missouri Valley Champ or the A-10 Winner, but you more often than not have no shot to win the Tournament. Guarantee that the Tournament will include a certain number of conference champs (20, 22), and leave up to the schools to play a tough enough schedule.

:The Lesser “Bowl Game” Tournament Would Direct Agreements with Conferences,
which would lead to the conference and teams getting more money directly. And unlike the bowl system, cold weather cities wouldn’t be excluded, so you could have tournaments in Chicago, New York, and Boston.

:Lesser College Teams get More Chances to Improve. Remember that streak of NIT winners reaching the NCAA’s the next year? All those games help teams get better. A lot of teams in the middle who exit the Tournament in the first round loose an opportunity to get better. With 8-team tournaments, college basketball teams have the opportunity to win a tournament and go into the off-season with momentum for the next year, as their counterparts in football do.

:Making the Tournament Mean More. The great programs won’t celebrate appearance, but when Iowa or Pitt hang banner for making the tournament, they will represent special teams. And all the teams who are annually good can get in.

Biggest Unknown: How will the Lesser Tournaments Fair? Will NC State fans care about winning the Capitol One Tournament in Orlando? Will Iowa State fans head to Chicago to watch the Cyclones play the MAC Champ? What would be really telling is if Kansas fans would drive to Omaha or Oklahoma City after a disappointing year.

Biggest Myth: Coaches will have Less Job Security. For the record, college football coaches have much less security than college football coaches, save for a handful of basketball first jobs, because of the money in football. If anything, winning one of the “Bowl Tournaments” will do more to help a coaches image than just going out in the first round of the NCAAs or in the third round of the NIT. Keeping your job will still come down to recruiting and filling your arena.

This formula isn’t perfect, and yes, the great 5/12 upsets will be gone from the NCAA’s. But the Tournament is expanding itself into oblivion, because college basketball is nothing but a good ‘ole boys network that will put routine over what’s best for the sport any day. This system increases the value of the regular season, the urgency of the postseason tournament, and keeps more teams involved longer. It won’t happy, but I’d love to see it


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