Photo: CBS Sports
In a recent column for the New York Times, Greg Bishop notes that attendance and television ratings are down in college basketball and that the popularity of the NCAA tournament “has rendered the sport’s regular season largely irrelevant.”This problem would only get worse if the NCAA decided to expand the tournament to 96 or 128 teams, something that has been discussed.
However, there is a way in which more of the 347 Division I basketball teams have a shot at the NCAA tourney and still bring relevance back to the regular season:
A 32-Team NCAA Tournament and a 128-team sub-tournament
One simple solution is to cut the NCAA tournament to 32 teams. The first 16 spots would go to the regular season champions of the six largest conferences (SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, ACC) and the next 10 best teams in the country.
The other 16 spots in the tournament would come from a 128-team sub-tournament. In the sub-tournament, there would be 16 sites the weekend before the NCAA tournament in which eight teams would play three games apiece. The winning team at each of these sites would then play one of the big 16 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Why it works
By expanding the field to 144 teams, the NCAA will have opened the tournament to more teams that would almost never get a shot at the big time. And in doing so, they will increase the chances of seeing Cinderellas emerge.
And by essentially giving 16 teams a three-round bye, there will suddenly be much more importance placed on the regular season of college basketball while at the same time increasing the possibility that the best teams in the country are playing in the biggest games.
There are two potential weaknesses. The first is that the addition of the sub-tourney lengthens the season by a week. This could be fixed by eliminating one or two games from the regular season. But it is unlikely that schools will want to forego those extra ticket sales.
The other big problem is that it would diminish the value of the conference tournaments. While the winners of those tourneys would still get an automatic bid to the sub-tourney (if not already in the main tourney), the field of 144 means many of those teams would be getting a bid anyway.
There is room for flexibility in this model. Maybe the sub-tournament is just 64 teams. Or maybe the main tournament is still 64 teams with half getting bids and the other half coming from the sub-tourney.
But the real flexibility is that both the regular season purists and the NCAA tournament fans win. And at the same time the NCAA tournament opens its doors to more teams that are usually excluded.
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