What If...the NCAA Tournament Had Already Expanded to 96 Teams?

Would this man still be Missouri's coach?
(All pics in this post from The Trib's awesome archive)

I love the bowl system in college football.  As I've said before, in the most oligarchical of sports, where the elites will always be the elite, and they rarely let anybody new into the club, I like there's a little bit of socialism thrown into the mix.  Go 6-6?  Congrats!  You're going to Boise (or Houston, or Shreveport, or Arizona, or wherever)!  Yes, it rewards mediocrity, and yes, saying Mizzou has been to bowl games for five of the last six seasons doesn't mean quite what it would have meant in the 1970s or 1960s.  I get it.  But with such an unfair power structure in my favorite sport, I like that mediocre teams still have something to play for since they'll almost certainly never be part of the sport's ruling class.

Basketball, on the other hand, seems to be doing just fine as it is.  There are currently 347 teams in Division I, and technically all but a handful of them have a chance at the national title.  Okay, they don't really have a chance, but if they win out at the end of the season (through the conference tournament and NCAA tournament), they can win the national title.  Yes, there's still a power structure in place -- Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, etc., have been good, are good (most of the time), and will be good in the future.  But you can still break through in basketball a whole lot easier than you can in football.

With the NCAA Tournament, NIT, CBI, and CollegeInsider.com tournament (you know you watched the Bradley-ODU final ... admit it), you've got roughly 120-130 teams making the postseason, or about 35% of D1 teams.  Yes, that's a smaller percentage than in football, which has actually crept over the 50% mark, but it's already to the point where the lesser tournaments (CollegeInsider.com, at least ... and maybe the CBI too) have accepted teams with losing records just to create a somewhat attractive field of teams.  They're scraping the bottom of the barrel, in other words, but bids are there for the taking.  And with the conference tournaments, most teams already have a direct path to the postseason no matter how bad their regular season went.  That's a perk college football cannot offer.

Anyway, one of the biggest complaints with the bowl system is that, not only does it reward mediocrity, but it gives mediocre coaches a bragging point with which to keep their jobs.  If they're coaching a major conference team and just go 6-6 every year, they're going to go to a bowl almost every year, but they should hardly deserve congratulations for that. The reward for consistent 6-6 or 7-5 seasons is what led me to coin the term, Glen Mason Territory.  If a coach is keeping you at or above .500 every year, he's not really giving you a reason to fire him, but he's not even remotely keeping the fanbase excited.

I thought of this when I read Year2's "What a 96 Team Tournament Would Mean Competitively" post over at Team Speed Kills.  Here's the last line:

The only thing the expanded field would do from a practical standpoint (beyond extra money and ratings) would be to provide up to 31 more coaches an excuse for not getting fired.

Glen Mason Territory for basketball?  Is it possible?  This, of course, leads to the topic of today's post: If the NCAA Tournament had expanded to 96 teams starting in, say, 2004 ... would Quin Snyder have survived as coach of Missouri?  Not saying this would be a good or bad thing (I think I know where everybody stands on that, but that's not the point), but ... would it have happened?  Let's take a look.

2004


As we all know, the downfall started in 2004.  Mizzou underachieved in 2001-02, and the lesser play was already starting become what looked like a Quin Snyder habit, but the 2002 Elite Eight run negated the bad feelings there.  And in 2002-03, Mizzou drew a solid 6-seed despite the loss of Clarence Gilbert and Kareem Rush, and they came within one Rickey Paulding runner of beating Marquette in the second round and making at least their second straight Sweet Sixteen appearance (and with a beatable Pitt team in the Sweet Sixteen, it could have been more than that).  In 2003-04, they began the season in the Top 10, lost gut-wrenching games to Gonzaga, Illinois, Memphis, Belmont, Iowa State, Texas and Kansas (all by five points or less, or in OT), and eventually missed out on the NCAA Tournament despite a late-February hot streak.  The bitterness from this season, combined with the embarrassment of the Ricky Clemons fiasco and the proceeding probation (unfair as it may have been ... and I'm a defensive enough Mizzou fan that I have no choice but to ask what the difference was between what Snyder was found guilty of, so to speak, at Mizzou, and what Bill Self has admitted to at both Illinois and Kansas ... I can't help myself) but Quin Snyder's tenure on thin ice.  The blah 2004-05 season, followed by the debacle of 2005-06 sealed Quin's fate -- well, that and a home visit from Gary Link, whom you should NEVER look in the eye for fear of losing your job; however, with a 96-team tournament, Mizzou would have easily made the field.  Plus, they'd have probably gotten a decent draw to boot.

Let's look at how a 2004 NCAA Tournament field would have looked with 96 teams, 24 to a region.  To do this, I took the actual 65-team field, kept everybody in the same regions, and added the next 31 teams according to RPI.  The one catch: they had to be at least .500 (the basketball 6-6) to make the field.  With this theoretical draw, Mizzou ended up in the Midwest Region, which ended up looking like this:

16 Colorado (17-10)
17 Northern Iowa (20-9)
1 Kentucky (26-4)
9 UAB (20-9)
24 Florida A&M (14-16)
8 Washington (19-11)
12 Pacific (23-7)
21 Tennessee (15-13)
5 Providence (20-8)
13 UI-Chicago (24-7)
20 Valparaiso (17-12)
4 Kansas (22-9)
11 Utah (24-8)
22 Purdue (17-13)
6 Boston College (23-9)
14 Oklahoma (19-10)
19 Hawaii (18-11)
3 Georgia Tech (23-9)
10 Nevada (22-8)
23 Alabama State (16-14)
7 Michigan State (18-11)
15 Missouri (16-13)
18 George Washington (18-11)
2 Gonzaga (27-2)

(I'm not going to lie: I had some fun putting this together.  I still think the 96-team tournament is a terrible idea, but the bracket nerd in me would make do.)

(And yes, this puts Mizzou in the same side of the bracket as Oklahoma, but I'm pretty sure rules like that would go out the window in a tournament in which upwards of 10-12 teams from the same conference could make the field.  Pretty sure as long as you don't play them until the Sweet 16, it's all good.  So there you go.)

So ... with the way Mizzou peaked in the NCAA Tournament from 2001-03, is there any reason to believe it wouldn't happen again?  Ken Pomeroy's ranking suggest Mizzou would have handled GW in the first round, and my bitter logic says they would have gotten sweet revenge on Gonzaga for the 8-second 10-second violation (and the proceeding overtime loss) the previous December, and with this draw, there is a decent chance that Mizzou would have made the Round of 32 ... which would have come against Nevada, who beat Michigan State.  That was a loaded Nevada team, but even if Mizzou had lost in that round instead of the Sweet 16 against Georgia Tech (or, of course, the Elite Eight against Kansas), that's still a decent run with which to salvage the season.

And even if Mizzou crapped out and lost in the first round ... Quin could point out that they still made it.  The 2003-04 season would have seen Mizzou's sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and despite the disappointment of making the tourney as a 15-seed, that would have given Snyder something to hang his hat upon, legitimate or not.

2005


So Mizzou would have entered 2004-05 having, at the very least, extended their NCAA Tournament streak, and there's a good chance they'd have won a game or three and given themselves a lot more momentum heading into the season.  The specter of probation still loomed, and I'm going to go ahead and assume that Mizzou still wouldn't have landed Tyler Hansbrough, but things don't appear nearly as gloomy heading into the future.

And even though nothing's going to make the 2004-05 team very good ... they still make the NCAA Tournament at 16-16 with a #72 RPI.  Yeah.  Think about that.  THAT team would have made the tourney.  That should be all you need to know for why expansion is a bad idea.  Anyway, we'll stick them in the South Region, which ends up looking like this:

16 Rice (17-11)
17 St. Joseph's (19-11)
1 Duke (27-6)
9 Mississippi State (23-11)
24 Delaware State (19-14)
8 Stanford (18-13)
12 Old Dominion (28-6)
21 NIagara (20-10)
5 Michigan State (22-6)
13 Vermont (25-7)
20 Davidson (18-8)
4 Syracuse (27-7)
11 UTEP (27-8)
22 Clemson (16-15)
6 Utah (29-6)
14 Wichita State (20-9)
19 W. Kentucky (20-8)
3 Oklahoma (25-8)
10 Iowa (21-11)
23 Eastern Kentucky (25-4)
7 Cincinnati (25-8)
15 SMS (18-12)
18 Missouri (16-16)
2 Kentucky (28-6)

KenPom says Mizzou-SMS would have been basically a toss-up, but ... well, we know that fate enjoys laughing at us, and it ESPECIALLY did in the middle part of the decade, so I'm going to go ahead and say that SMS beats Mizzou, and this becomes Mizzou's first "first-round exit" (even thought that means something different now) since the 2000 tourney, a run of four straight seasons with at least one NCAA tourney win.  Mizzou finishes 16-17, which even looks like the 6-7 finish that is possible in football if you lose your bowl game.

So what happens now?  Obviously fans would still be clamoring for a change -- it's clear that Mizzou is faltering here, going from a 6- to a 15- to an 18-seed in the tourney and staring at a pretty iffy roster for 2005-06.  But they're still making the tournament, so ... is Mike Alden as close to making a change?  It was clear in reality that Quin needed to pull some surprises in 2005-06 to keep his job, and when the team tanked, it was over.  But if the downfall heading into 2005-06 was less pronounced because of the watered-down tourney bids, would Alden have been as close to pulling the trigger?

2006


No need to draw up a tourney bracket for this one -- NOTHING was getting Mizzou into the NCAA Tournament that year, unless they somehow signed a better recruit or two -- Luke Zeller? Brandon Rush? --  from keeping their tourney streak alive.  So let's assume Mizzou collapses just like they did in the real 2005-06 ... knowing Mike Alden's patience level, and knowing that this is officially the first season without a tourney bid instead of the third straight, I highly doubt Alden fires Snyder.  I mean, with the probation and the chilly relationship between Snyder and Alden, it still might have been a possibility, but it might have been far from a certainty.

And if Quin survives to 2006-07 ... does he turn things around?  Does continuity (2006-07 would have been his eighth season in Columbia) and perseverance, not to mention the slow fading out of probation, lead to better recruiting and trips back to the tourney (with seeds in the teens, of course)?

I don't think Quin would still be Mizzou's coach right now -- even if he didn't fail until 2006-07, I still think he would have failed -- but you can't say you are 100% sure about the answer.  Glen Mason Territory ... might have officially been renamed Quin Snyder Territory.

Same goes for Norm Stewart...

...who probably would have gotten into the 1996 tourney at 17-14 with a mid-80s RPI and definitely would have gotten into the 1998 tourney at 17-14 with a mid-50s RPI.  Neither of those teams was truly good enough to make the tourney (though making the 1998 tourney would have meant better things for the 1999 team, which totally froze in the moment of their first tourney in four seasons and played scared at the beginning and end of their first-round game against New Mexico), but they'd have been there.  And with Norm having only missed one tourney in that mid-1990s drought instead of three, does he still "retire" after 1998-99?  Depending on how much of a push you believe he got from new AD Mike Alden, the answer might be yes or no.

Same goes for Mike Anderson...

...who, if he had still been hired in 2006-07 (that is now a complete uncertainty with Snyder maybe hanging on another year), might have crept into the bracket at 18-12 with a mid-90s RPI in 2006-07 before missing out in 2007-08.

Summary

It's an interesting feeling looking back on the last 15 years and seeing that Mizzou might have missed the NCAA Tournament as few as three times if a 96-team tournament had been implemented all along ... and not necessarily looking at that as a good thing.  But that's where we are.  With 31 more at-large bids, getting into the NCAA Tourney would mean infinitely less than it currently does, at least for the fans.  Even if you sneak in as a 12-seed and exit in the first round, it still means something, just as it means something if you think you put together a case for the tourney but were left out.  Instead, we'd have found ourselves in situations like 2004-05, where we as fans would have treated a tourney bid as less exciting than an Insight Bowl bid.  When your team is a 12-seed, you can talk yourself into your team being able to make a run.  When your team is a 19-seed or something, you know its tourney stay is probably going to end before the first weekend of the tourney even comes around.

I can understand why coaches would want to expand the field -- it's pretty obvious.  It gives you leverage for job security, and it allows you to reward your kids for doing even a decent job on the season, not even a good job.  And as I hinted above, I'm sure that if the NCAA does decide to go with 96 teams, I would bitch and moan and groan ... and then throw myself into trying to predict all 96 teams correctly, have fun drawing up brackets, and enjoy the fact that, barring an absolutely terrible year, Mizzou's probably going to be involved in March Madness.  I'm a fan, and I'm a lot easier to please than I wish I were sometimes.

In other words ... please, NCAA, save me from myself.  I don't want to enjoy a 96-team tournament, so don't give me the opportunity.

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