Thoughts on the 68-Team Tournament
With yesterday’s announcement that the expansion of next year’s NCAA tournament to 68 teams has been approved, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how I feel about the expansion. Like most observers, I’m thankful for two of the results from the process leading to next year’s expansion. First, I’m pleased that the tournament was not expanded to 96 teams, as was originally expected. While the most often cited non-monetary reason for expansion to 96 teams was a desire to create more opportunities for mid-major teams, I suspect that eventually the largest beneficiaries of the expansion would be mediocre power-conference teams. Frankly, if you come in 8th in the Big Ten, I don’t need to see you play any more games. And aside from adding 31 more mostly mediocre teams, a 96-team tournament would have ruined the simple beauty of the current bracket, which has until now been comprised essentially six uniform rounds. A 96-team tournament would guarantee the addition of byes to the tournament. Though there are rare exceptions, byes seldom seem like a good tournament device to me.
The second, and perhaps more significant positive to come out of the expansion is the new TV deal, splitting television rights to the tournament between longtime exclusive rights holder CBS and tournament broadcast newcomer Turner Sports. The major impact of the deal is to allow the national broadcast of every tournament game on either CBS or one of the three Turner Sports cable networks. This is a coup for college basketball fans who want access to every game during the first two weekends of the tournament, and a personal bonus for me, as it almost certainly means that I won’t have to fork over $70 to Directv for the Mega March Madness plan next year. That extra $70 sliding back into my pocket makes it tough for me to say anything other than that expansion is good (and also sort of makes me wonder if I’m misunderstanding the deal, since this almost seems too good to be true).
However, I’m not without my reservations about the new 68-team NCAA tournament. While it has yet to be decided how the tournament bracket will be structured with three teams added to the mix, a logical assumption by many is that three more “play-in games” featuring the lowest seeds will be added. Thus, instead of one region having a playoff between its lowest seeds to see who will face the number one seed in Thursday/Friday action (as has been the case since the expansion to 65 teams), all four regions will have a “play-in game.” Yesterday I read a piece by John Gasaway (formerly of Big Ten Wonk fame and currently of Basketball Prospectus fame) arguing essentially that the format that I have just described is the most fair way to structure the tournament. While Gasaway is certainly correct that basic competitive fairness mandates that the lowliest teams should have the most difficult path through the tournament, I think forcing the lowliest teams to essentially “play-in” to the tournament overlooks a bigger fairness issue–the failure to recognize the deference due to conference champions.
The NCAA has long made the promise that conference champions are guaranteed a berth in the NCAA tournament. However, the increase of the number of conferences in existence over the years has decreased the number of at-large bids for teams that large numbers of fans are actually interested in. The NCAA doesn’t want to go without these popular at-large teams, so it has created the play-in game concept. To me, the play-in game feels like a loophole that the NCAA has created to get out of its obligation to put small, weak conference champions in the NCAA tournament. (Note–the NCAA shuns the term “play-in game” for precisely this reason–it too accurately describes what’s going on.) Yes, the play-in game (or in next year’s likely case, four games) is technically an NCAA tournament game. Thus, technically, both participants in the game are participating in the NCAA tournament. The loser still gets to put up a banner, print t-shirts proclaiming their participation and all that good stuff. However, that losing team never gets the experience of traveling to a regional site with eight other teams to play in the NCAA tournament that everyone knows and cares about. Instead of ending their season playing against one of the nation’s top teams in a huge arena filled with fans, the play-in loser’s season ends in Dayton, playing in a game that, while televised, is watched primarily by problem gamblers and social deviants (even I’m not enough of a junkie to watch two teams fight for a 16-seed). That’s not the NCAA tournament in my book, no matter what the NCAA calls it. To me, the play-in game is nothing more than the NCAA finding a way to cheat a small, weak team out of an honor that it has rightfully earned by winning its conference. I see little fairness in that, and would hate to see three more games added just to push out the little guy who earned his way in.
Fortunately, my rantings about such a format are completely premature, given that no particular bracket format has been settled on. So at least for the time being, I remain pleased with the NCAA’s decision to only expand to 68 teams. I still miss the simplicity of 64 teams, but if the NCAA does the right thing and forces bubble teams to fill the play-in game slots, I may actually come to like the 68-team format more. After all, it would be tough for me to dislike a format change that both pays respect to the privileges earned by conference champions and provides four watchable Tuesday night games between fringe at-large teams fighting for a second-chance into the real tourney.