Reforming The Tourney, Part 6: Two Ways To Get To 96

Back on Monday, which seems like it was about a month ago at this point, rumors of NCAA Tournament expansion started to swirl again. 

Over on SB Nation, I laid out a simple plan to expand the tournament, one that keeps both the regular season and conference tournaments relevant and gives the mid-majors a better shot at making an expanded field.

It turns out that this idea may not be as much of a non-starter as I thought, at least according to an AP story posted on ESPN.com Friday afternoon.

Another argument is that a larger field would give teams from smaller conferences a better chance of getting in. Giving automatic bids to the regular-season and conference tournament champions would reward consistency while still allowing for surprise.

I've spent much of the last two evenings building a pair of 96-team brackets based on this season. The first simply adds 31 at-large teams, the overwhelming majority of the NIT field, to the current 65-team Tournament. Each conference keeps their single auto-bid. I've labeled this one the NIT Option.

The second gives each conference two automatic bids, for 62 total, leaving 34 at-large spots. I've named this one the Auto Bid Option. Since conference tournaments haven't started yet, I simply entered the top two teams in each league into this field.

In constructing both brackets, I tried to keep as many of the current procedures in place as I could. In theory, teams from the same conference can meet as early as the second round today, but the Committee does a good job of keeping them separated until the regional final.

With an additional round thrown into a 96-team field, I've tweaked things so that teams from the same conference can meet in the regional semifinals.

Click here for the NIT Option bracket.

Click here for the Auto Bid Option bracket.

After the jump, I'll take a look at which conferences are getting the most bids in each field and some of the matchup difficulties a 96-team bracket poses.

Bid Breakdown

As you can see in the Rundown section of the NIT Option bracket, the ACC sends all 12 members to the field, while the Big East has 13 of its 16 teams in the field. The Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC feature a relatively low number because of the weakness of the bottom halves of those conferences. The Pac-10 actually manages to get three teams in this bracket.

Of the 96 teams in the NIT Option bracket, 50 come from the BCS conferences, that's 52.1 percent.

On the at-large front, of the 65 at-large bids in the field, 21 went to non-BCS leagues. That's a little more than 31 percent.

Thanks to the presence of 62 conference regular season and tournament winners in the Auto Bid bracket, the BCS leagues only contribute 39 of the 96 teams in the field, 40.6 percent. So, mid- and low-major participation definitely increases.

However, since so many of the non-BCS schools who grabbed at-large bids in the NIT Option field received auto bids in this bracket, only 6 of the 34 at-larges in this field come from outside of the six power conferences.  

Matchups

The biggest issue I have with a 96-team field is the way the bracket is set up. As you can see, the highest seeds in the tournament no longer have the benefit of facing teams that are at the very bottom of the field in their first game.

In the NIT option bracket, Kansas -- the top overall seed -- would face either 16th-seeded Marquette or a sure to be motivated 17 seed, in-state rival Wichita State, in their first game! It wouldn't be much better in the Auto Bid bracket, where the Jayhawks would face either Pacific or Utah State right off the bat.

Meanwhile, the worst teams in the tournament, the 24 seeds, would face a second round matchup against an 8 seed, if they were lucky enough to survive their opener. 

There are two ways around this. The first would be terrible news for all those people who run bracket pools. 

The current four-team pod expands to a six-team one in a 96-team field. Let's take a look at the Temple/Gonzaga pod in the NIT option bracket. Say the first round games are on Wednesday, and 13th-seeded Cincinnati beats No. 20 Murray State, but 21st-seeded Pacific stuns No. 12 Illinois. 

In this case, I'd reseed the teams at the specific site. Instead of Cincinnati playing Temple and Pacific facing Gonzaga on Thursday as the bracket suggests, I'd give the higher seeded Owls the benefit of playing the lower-seeded team, Pacific, setting up a Gonzaga-Cincinnati game in the other game.

The other option is to play the 32 opening round games, featuring seeds 9 through 24, on one weekend. Then, the Committee could get back together and place the 32 winners into the 64-team field alongside the top 32 teams who received byes.

The result would likely be the same, as the stronger teams would prevail more often than not, meaning that higher seeds will still face a more difficult opening games than they ever would have in the 64/65-team era. However, waiting a week would allow the Committee to still protect the higher seeds by pairing them up against the lower-rated teams who happen to pull upsets far more easily.t.

Which option do you like more?  Also, what do you think about the matchups? Are they something that's going to keep the casual fan interested? To me, adding an extra 31-teams, no matter how you do it, doesn't really create any must-see games. Sure, I'll watch and you'll watch, but will the average American sports fan?

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