In my previous entries in this series, I've focused on keeping the 64-team NCAA field, or (gasp) shrinking it. This piece represents a turning point, as from here on out, I'm going to look at several different ideas for tournament expansion.
The Opening Round is the simplest place to start this exercise for several reasons.
- Logistically, an expansion of the Opening Round would be far easier to fit in the current Tournament format and schedule, compared to a more comprehensive expansion (16-64 teams).
- An expanded Opening Round allows for more at-large bids, something that would be popular with most conferences.
- Teams who could gain at-large bids through an expansion of the Opening Round would fit on the 11-13 lines. Teams slotted here are perfectly capable of winning one or more games in the Tournament. It's very possible that the first few teams left out of the field in any given year could have done just as much damage as the teams that actually did advance in their place.
- I haven't yet put together an expanded bracket in Excel to illustrate more complicated expansion proposals.
But before you find out about how I'd expand the Opening Round, you first need to know why the Opening Round exists. More on this after the jump.
You may not realize it, but you're actually living in the third Opening Round era in NCAA Tournament history.
In 1980, the NCAA expanded the tourney field from 40 to 48, with an even split of automatic and at-large bids. One year later, it became NCAA policy that "no more than 50 percent of tournament berths shall be filled by automatic qualifiers." In 1983, the number of conferences eligible for automatic entry finally jumped past the 50 percent mark. Therefore, the conference champions of the eight lowest rated conferences had to play in an Opening Round, which was held in Dayton and Philadelphia the Tuesday before the start of the First Round proper.
Alcorn State, LaSalle, Princeton, Robert Morris all won their Opening Round games in '83 and became the 12 seeds in the 48 team field. Unlike the current period, when the Opening Round winner plays at a Friday site, the Explorers and Colonials played at a Thursday site, while the Braves and Tigers played on Friday. Princeton actually managed to beat Oklahoma State, 56-53 in Boise, before they fell to Boston College in the Second Round.
In 1984, the NCAA added an additional Opening Round game, played at the Palestra. Alcorn State and Princeton won again, and they were joined by Morehead State, Northeastern, and Richmond. The Spiders managed to win as a 12 seed, upsetting Auburn 72-71 in Charlotte, while Notheastern lost to VCU and Alcorn State fell to Kansas, each by a single point.
Of course, the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985 and the first Opening Round era ended. The NCAA then capped the number of automatic bids at 30. This limit became an issue again in 1991, when 33 conferences were eligible for an auto bid. At this point, the NCAA decided to be completely inconsistent. If you look at the Official Men's Final Four Records Book (thanks to Kyle Whelliston, I have a difficult to find hard copy), you will see the 1983 and 1984 Opening Round games listed under the bracket. You will also see the current era Opening Round games listed under the bracket. However, you have to look in the Tournament History section to read about the 1991 "play-in."
Teams who won Opening Round games, both in the 80s and the 21st century, are credited with Tournament wins for winning these games. The three winners in 1991, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe, and St. Francis (PA) did not.
The "play-in" lasted only a year, thanks to the disappearance of the American South Conference and the fact the East Coast Conference lost their auto bid. The Opening Round, however, came roaring back in 2001, with the split of the Mountain West Conference from the Western Athletic Conference. Now, the two lowest rated teams in the field meet in Dayton a little more than 48 hours after the field is announced, all for the right to lose to a number 1 seed playing at a Friday site.
An Opening Round for Auto Bids
My first bracket with an expanded Opening Round borrows from the original format used in 1983 and 1984. In this case, the eight lowest rated teams are paired off and forced to play on Tuesday for the opportunity to play a number one seed on Thursday or Friday. To make things easier logistically, these games would be played at the First/Second Round site, so two games would be in Dayton, while Greensboro and Philadelphia would get a game apiece.
Since there are now three additional Opening Round games, three at-large bids would then open up in the bracket. Therefore, I've added Creighton, Saint Mary's, and San Diego State to the field as 13 seeds. Most of the 15 seeds fall down into the Opening Round, so a majority of teams on lines 13 down drop a seed line to accommodate this expansion.
An Opening Round for At-Large Selections
There are many of us who don't want to limit the opportunities for automatic qualifiers, so my second bracket looks at an Opening Round where bubble teams are forced to make their case for inclusion on the court.
I had to do a little bit of shuffling with the field, due to the presence of so many automatic entries on lines 11 and 12. I ended up pairing the four of the at-large teams in the field against four teams who ended up in the NIT. Two of these winners would end up as 11 seeds with the other two becoming 12 seeds. Again, these games would be played at the First Round site on Tuesday, so Boise would get two games, and Minneapolis and Portland one each.
An expanded Opening Round is just scratching the surface of the ideas for an expanded field, and I'll be back talking about them over the next few weeks. Now, it's back to Excel to get the bracket for these pieces in shape.