In Defense of a 96-team NCAA

First of all, let me say that this time of year is the best in all of sports.  The conference tournaments, the selection process, the NCAA, even the NIT, CBI, and tournaments are a unique process in all of sports.  I may be a college basketball geek, but I love following teams through the various brackets -- and it is the only sport where someone 0-31 could win 10 straight or so and end up national champions.  I like that aspect of it -- as it gives teams (save the Ivy League and those leagues where not all teams make it) a reason to keep playing hard and keep improving, knowing there is a remote chance they could put it all together and still pull off the improbable.

Second of all, I want to say that I am not in favor of expanding the field to 96 teams.  I favor a modest expansion to 68 teams -- have for a while -- because frankly there are 3 teams or so every year that should be in, and I hate the fact only one region has a play in game.  The fact is, the number of teams in college basketball has expanded the last 25 years (since the field went to 64) and I think a modest increase to 68 makes sense. 

I also don't like the idea of going to 96 teams because right now, the NIT is a good tournament.  I do enjoy watching it, as it is a bunch of decent teams that are still in the Top 100 of college basketball.  I think trashing this tournament would be a mistake, as I think having a real consolation tournament is a good idea -- and CBI and just dont do the job, in my view.

That all being said, I am not as anti-96 as others are, and think it does have it's merits. 

The fact is there are 350 teams and having 96 would still put the college basketball postseason below most other leagues/sports in the percentage of teams making the official postseason tournament.  Also, because I do consider the NIT a major postseason tournament, it really is essentially combining the two tournaments, so it's not like you're admitting teams that aren't making the postseason at all.

So, let's immediately put to bed any notion that expanding the field would result in teams like Colorado and Nebraska being on the bubble.  That's ridiculous.  The Big 12 this year would still get just 7 teams.  What you would see, however, is teams like Ole Miss and Minnesota -- currently very much on the bubble and looking out, probably making the field without much question.  Is that a good thing?  Perhaps it is, perhaps it is, but It would hardly ruin the tournament.

Furthermore, if you're a believer in the notion, as I am, that one great part about college basketball is that conference champs like Coastal Carolina get a chance to prove themselves, then you should like this...Coastal Carolina is going to be a 16 seed in this year's field probably.  Well, in a 96 team field, they're probably a 22, 23, or 24 seed.  But, a 23 seed is much more likely to beat a 9 than a 16 beating a 1.  That means that conference champs like Coastal Carolina -- who do deserve to be in - have a chance to get a win or two.

To me, that can only HELP college basketball.  That's because high school talent is much more likely to look at a "smaller school" and consider attending there.  Though parity has increased in college basketball, there is still a pretty clear dividing line between the haves and have nots, and I think a 96 team field would help more teams emerge, which in a 350-team sport, is not a bad thing at all.

Just for grins, I did an analysis and estimate that these 96 teams would qualify if that were in effect this year.  I put an asterik next to the teams that would likely not be in the 65 team field this year:

America East (1):  Stony Brook
ACC (7):  Duke, GA Tech, VA Tech, Clemson, FSU, Wake, Maryland
Atlantic Sun (1): Campbell
Atlantic 10: (7): Richmond, Temple, Xavier, Rhode Island, SLU*, Dayton*, Charlotte*
Big East: (12): Syracuse, Marquette, Villanova, West Virginia, Pitt, Louisville, G'Town, Notre Dame*, Cincy*, South Florida*, Seton Hall*, UCONN*
Big Sky (1): Weber State
Big South (1): Coastal Carolina
Big 10 (7):  Ohio State, Mich State, Purdue, Minnesota*, Illinois, Wisconsin, N'western*
Big 12 (7):  KU, KSU, MU, NU, OSU, ATM, Baylor
Big West (1): UCSB
Colonial (4): Old Dominion, Northeastern*, William & Mary*, VCU*
CUSA (4):  UTEP, UAB, Memphis, Tulsa*, Marshall*
Horizon (1): Butler
Ivy (2): Cornell, Harvard*
MAAC (3): Siena, Fairfield*, Iona*
MAC (2): Kent State, Akron*
MEAC (1): Morgan State
MVC (3):  Northern Iowa, Wichita State*, Illinois State*
MWC (4):  BYU, New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State
Northeast (1): Quinnipiac
Ohio Valley (1):  Murray State
Pac-10 (4): Washington, Arizona State, Washington*, USC*
Patriot (1): Lehigh
SEC (6):  Miss State, Ole Miss*, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee
Southern (2): Wofford, Charleston*
Southland (2): Sam Houston State, SFA*
SWAC (1): Jackson State
Summit (2): Oakland, IUPUI*
Sun Belt (1): North Texas
West Coast (3): Gonzaga, St. Mary's, Portland*
WAC (3): Utah State, NM State*, LA Tech*

Now, a lot of teams, I understand, arguably do not belong in a championship tournament.  But it is not a bad field, and aspects of it would be more interesting watch for sure.  A 24 seed, say, like IUPUI, would play a traditional 9 seed, say, like St. Mary's.  That's a far more interesting matchup than say, Oakland vs. Duke.  And, with a 16 seed being more like a quality mid major like North Texas instead of Jackson State, you could no longer just write #1 seeds to the next round automatically without doing a little bit of research.

So, while I would prefer 68, I don't believe 96 teams would be the end of the world.   Logistics would be an issue -- getting teams to that extra round -- would you play it Tuesday (quite quick) or simply make the first weekend the first two rounds, and then push the "Round of 32" later? 

It's an interesting concept and one I think is probably coming down the pike.  So, while we may hate it and not wish it to happen, I do think it's wise to not say it's the end of college basketball -- and I'd go as far to say it's not ruining the tournament. 

Our brackets could handle it, folks.

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