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The Other Side of the Apocalypse: Why expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams may be merely a bad idea, and not a terrible one.

Traversing the lonely stretch of highway between Kansas City and Columbia gives a man time to think.  And as I made my way east yesterday, the rumored expansion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament weighed on my mind.  Just hours had passed since those of us in the RMN Roundtable had expressed mass revulsion at the idea, and on the radio, Danny Clinkscale and Kevin Kietzman were echoing every concern we expressed.

And I began to think:  Would it really be as bad as everyone thinks?

And I decided:  No, probably not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still against it.  But as I thought more and more, I concluded that the folks who should hate the idea most are the reigning 800-pound gorillas of college basketball:  Kansas, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, etc.  And I thought, If those guys hate it, how bad can it be?

One prominent argument against expansion is that it will extend the tournament by a week, and the first week will consist solely of games no one wants to see.  But expansion need not require the tournament to be longer by even one day.  As it stands now, The Opening Round (the NCAA hates it when you say "play-in game") is played the same week as the first round, on the Tuesday before the big show begins on Thursday.  That doesn’t need to change.  Play eight games on Tuesday, with winners advancing to Thursday, and eight games on Wednesday, with winners advancing to Friday.  Play them at the same sites that host the first and second round games.  Attendance would be disastrous, but these games are made for TV anyway.  And while TV ratings would pale next to the Thursday/Friday games, ESPN (almost certainly the destination for these contests) would pull a lot bigger number than it gets for its afternoon assortment of NFL Live and Jim Rome is Burning.  And if you’re reading this (and I know you are), you’re someone who will cave and watch the evening games.  The verdict on scheduling:  Less than ideal, far from disastrous.

The other big argument against expansion is that it dilutes the quality of the field by injecting 32 undeserving teams into the event.  And while I agree that the additional teams would be undeserving, I think the idea would actually strengthen the field, and could make the least compelling matchups on Thursday and Friday (1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15) far more dangerous for the top seeds.  Structurally, it almost has to work like this:  The top eight seeds in each region get a bye.  That means that the top 32 teams start just where they’ve started for the past few decades.  And history has made it abundantly clear that the national champion is going to come from that pool (the lowest seeded team ever to win was Villanova, an 8-seed in 1985).  I’m about to jump into some numbers, so bear with me for a minute.

The opening round pairings would go like this:  9 vs. 24 (winner advances to play an 8); 10 vs. 23 (winner plays 7); 11 vs. 22 (6); 12 vs. 21 (5); 13 vs. 20 (4); 14 vs. 19 (3); 15 vs. 18 (2); 16 vs. 17 (winner advances to play a 1 seed).

In the current system, the biggest drop in quality of teams comes as we get to seeds 14, 15 and 16.  The last at-large teams to get selected almost always come in as seeds 12 and 13, meaning that the teams that just miss the field are 13-seed quality.  The teams seeded 14 through 16 are the weakest champions of the smallest conferences.  Under an expanded format, those that currently just miss the tournament are likely to make the field seeded in the 14 to 16 range, with the champs of the SWAC, MEAC and Atlantic Sun sliding into the 20 to 24 region of the bracket.

Play that out in your head for a minute.  A 16-seed has never beaten a 1, and a 15 has beaten a 2 only a few times since the field expanded to 64 (and then 65).  The inclusion of those teams is a near-farce; their reward for winning a conference tournament is the chance to be humiliated by Villanova.  But what happens if that 16-seed becomes a 23-seed instead?  Now, instead of facing a 1-seed, they face a 10.  And their challenge goes from completely impossible to merely difficult.  A 23-seed is going to win a game from time to time, and then that team is going to have a puncher’s chance in the second round against a 7-seed.  It makes those teams fuller participants in the tournament than they are currently.  At first glance, the smallest schools are likely to recoil at the thought of being bumped from 16 to 23, but once they think about it, they’re sure to embrace the opportunity.

Now play out the other end of the opening round bracket.  Last year’s 16-seeds were Morehead State, East Tennessee, Chattanooga and Radford.  They all lost their first round games by double digits, with an average margin of defeat of 32.  If the field expanded to 96 this year, the 16 and 17 seeds might be (and I’m just grabbing teams 61 through 68 in today’s CBS RPI) Kent State, Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Seton Hall, Marquette and New Mexico State.  Do those teams deserve to be in the field?  Probably not (though Illinois has certainly made its case lately).  Are those teams better than the 16-seeds we would get otherwise?  Absolutely.  And the thing that has never happened – a 16 beating a 1 – would become a possibility every single year.  The 2 and 3 seeds face even greater jeopardy from the improved 14 and 15 seeds.  A handful of Thursday and Friday games would go from walkovers to dogfights.  Coaches seem to like the idea now because they think that more teams in the tournament means more job security for coaches.  But how is John Calipari going to feel when he faces Tubby Smith instead of Towson State on Thursday?  If the beasts of the game stand to lose the most, there must be some perverse pleasure in embracing the idea.

So here’s the rub: Expansion would seem to make life a little tougher for seeds 1 through 4, and a little easier for seeds 5 through 8, which is likely to translate into more white-knuckle action in games played on the opening Thursday through Sunday.  Even if you have no interest in the games on Tuesday and Wednesday, the results may heighten your drama on Thursday and Friday.

In the end, I’m still opposed.  The point of the tournament is to crown a champion, not to create chaos or to artificially boost coaches’ job stability, and it’s impossible to argue with the utter perfection the event has achieved in its current state.  But I can’t deny that expansion has the potential to create real drama on the tournament’s first weekend, even if it is manufactured.  So, yes, I think expansion is a bad idea.  I also think Jersey Shore is a bad idea.  But it doesn’t mean we can take our eyes off of it.