PJ Media

Merit-Based March Madness

Butler University’s storied run to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Men’s basketball championship game makes a powerful argument for keeping March Madness as it is. But if the field is to be expanded, the performance of the Bulldogs and many of their feisty mid-major conference counterparts points the way to doing it right.

Although it’s not official, it is becoming more clear with each passing day that the NCAA intends to expand the tournament from its current 65-team field to 96. The issue has moved from if to when in a surprisingly short time.

Understandably, there is a great deal of opposition. Veteran sportswriter John Feinstein summed up the general sentiment succinctly Monday morning in the Washington Post, writing: “This NCAA Tournament is about as close to a perfect sporting event as happens in the jock pantheon.”

The motivation behind the expansion is clearly money, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, depending of course on how it’s used. If extra money from an expanded tournament helps schools keep minor sports programs going, great. If it only contributes to the major-school head coach salary excesses we have seen recently, a problem USA Today cited last week as “creating a strain on school budgets,” that would be a problem.

The most important objection to growing the field in 2011 or shortly thereafter has really been relevant since 1985, the year of March Madness’s last major expansion. Until then, it was usually the case that if your team didn’t win its conference’s regular-season championship or its post-season tournament, or otherwise have an exceptional won-lost record, it probably wasn’t going to the Big Dance. Though it has given us some wonderful Cinderella stories, that 1985 expansion has also enabled many mediocre teams to get in for one and only one reason: membership in a so-called major conference. Extending invitations to teams losing as many as 10, 12, or 14 games during the regular season has diminished the value of winning a conference championship, and on balance has not been fair to mid-major schools with better winning percentages.

ESPN Radio’s John Stashower raised the ante on this objection this past weekend, worrying that “no will pay attention to college basketball until March.” If the expansion simply serves to add more mediocre major-conference teams to the mix, he will probably be right. I’ve heard predictions that the Big East Conference might place as many as 13 teams in the tournament if the NCAA opts for more of the same in an expanded format. That’s ridiculous.

Here’s how to address the mediocrity problem, expand the field, and create what I believe will be a whole new level of interest and excitement:

  1. All conference regular season champs get in, and get a first-game bye. It just so happens that there are 32 conferences, which works out beautifully.
  2. All conference tournament winners get in. If the conference’s regular season champ also wins the conference tournament, or if the conference doesn’t play a post-season tournament, the regular season runner-up gets in (with tiebreakers established in advance so no one has to play an extra game, just as in the National Football League).
  3. The remaining 32 get selected at large, and must play on the road, visiting the home court of one of the conference tournament champs or second-place finishers just named.
  4. The winners of each of the 32 games in Step 3 must play their second game against a conference winner — on the conference winner’s home court.
  5. Because of travel logistics, it would probably take the entire first week of the tournament to complete Steps 3 and 4.
  6. Week 2’s festivities would be held at four regional venues. Eight teams at each venue would play over a period of three days (Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, or Wednesday-Friday-Sunday) to determine the Final Four participants.
  7. The Final Four would be played as it has been.

The beauty of this approach is that conference regular-season champs would only have to win six games to become NCAA champion. Everyone else would have to play seven games — deservedly so, because they didn’t win their conference. The home-court advantages in the early games are just rewards for achieving some form of success in conference play.

The 32 at-large teams would have a much tougher road to the Final Four, but they should. They’re not proven winners, regardless of their conference affiliation.

This format would be fair to all conferences. Butler, Northern Iowa, and several other mid-major teams this year, George Mason in its Final Four run a few years ago, and to a lesser extent many other mid-major teams in recent years have proven that there’s no good reason to disrespect any conference. Money isn’t a good reason, either. The approach I have outlined would in my opinion yield far higher TV ratings and spark an increase in casual fan interest that would be far greater than a more-of-the-same expansion plan. Also note that my approach adds four days of games (two each in the first and second weeks) instead of the two days currently under consideration.

Having 32 open slots is plenty for the so-called major conferences to get their mediocre teams into the field without excessive dilution (but don’t forget to include a few leftover mid-majors with very good regular-season records). By my count, 24 teams made the tournament this year without winning their conference championship or conference tournament, while three deserving mid-major conference or conference tournament winners were turned away. This means that only five more big-conference schools would have received invitations this year if my suggested 96-team approach had been in place.

It seems that I have a heavy-hitting ally for at least part of this approach. Mike Krzyzewski of the championship game-winning Duke Blue Devils has come out publicly in favor of a conference’s regular-season and tournament champions receiving automatic bids in an expanded format. Coach K, if you give all the conference champs byes and give all truly successful teams home-court advantage in their first NCAA tournament game, I’m sold.