The 96-Team Bracket: Thoughts On How It Will Work

With each passing day, it's looking more likely that the 2011 NCAA Tournament will feature 96 teams instead of the 65 invited since 2001. This means a return to cable for a bigger part of the action, including the Final Four in alternating years. Based on CBS and Turner's plan, it looks like the days of having to purchase Mega March Madness to get all of the early round games could be coming to an end.

While there's been some talk about where the extra 31 teams will come from (either via the old NIT field or a second automatic qualifier for each conference), conversation about how this revamped Tournament, particularly the first three rounds, will unfold has been lacking.

After the jump, I'll take a look at some ideas that may or may not be on the table for the 95 games on tap for the next Men's Basketball Championship.

The New First Round

It's clear that the top 32 teams in the field of 96, the top eight seeds in each region, will receive byes to Round Two. This expanded round will feature 64 teams and be played on the Saturday and Sunday of the first week.

The First Round will remain on Thursday and Friday of the first week, and will also feature 32 games, spread across eight sites, just like in past seasons. However, teams seeded 9th through 24th in each region will play in these games.

If the NCAA follows a traditional bracket setup, higher seeds could be at a bit of a disadvantage if there are upsets in Round One. For example, let's assume Kansas' first weekend pod for the recently completed tournament looked something like this.

Round One
16. North Carolina vs. 17. Connecticut
9. Northern Iowa vs. 24. Lehigh

Let's also assume that UNC won, but Lehigh stunned Northern Iowa.

In the traditional bracket format, Kansas' reward for earning a top seed would be a date with North Carolina in Round Two.

Eighth-seeded UNLV, on the other hand, would get the Mountain Hawks, likely one of the worst teams left in the field.

There's a simple way to fix this, though it would destroy bracket contests as we know them: Reseed the teams.

Now, if you were to put me in charge of planning things for a 96-team field, I'd have the first round take place on a separate weekend, then have the Committee reassemble and place the 32 winners in a 64-team bracket to start play the next Thursday and Friday. Since the chances of this happening are less than the chances of the NCAA changing its mind on the subject of expansion, there's only one real alternative: Reseed the teams within an individual six-team pod.

In my sample case, Kansas would face Lehigh, while UNLV would take on North Carolina. This preserves the 1 vs. 4/2 vs. 3 format we currently see in each pod.

However, this option may never see the light of day for one simple reason, regionals will now feature eight teams, which completely shakes up the pod system.

The New Pod System

If a 96-team bracket wasn't confusing enough, the new regional format threatens to make it even more difficult to figure out where teams are going after the first weekend.

The projections I've put out for a 96-team field all featured six-team pods. That's because I was assuming the first three rounds would all take place at the same site.

However, now that it looks like there will only be two games played at first week sites and 32 teams will advance to second week sites, look for three-team pods, each featuring one of the 32 bye teams. This could save some travel costs, but would kill any plan involving reseeding.

This would make things more confusing for casual fans as the four Second Round winners from a single site could conceivably head to four separate regional locations.

Regionals

The biggest change for the four Regional tournaments will be an additional day's (and I do mean day) play.

The Round of 32 looks like it take place on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the Tournament's second week. In 2011, the West and Southeast Regions would have a quadruple-header on Tuesday, while the East and Southwest would have one on Wednesday. Expect the early games for this round to be on cable (TBS and TNT), with one of those two outlets sharing the evening session with CBS.

Note: That's not a misprint. The Southwest Regional in San Antonio replaces the Midwest for 2011.

Once the regional semifinals start on the Thursday of the second week, expect things to get back to normal, except for TV coverage, as Turner will likely split games with CBS.

Those are my quick thoughts on some of the big changes we could see with expansion. Now all that's left is to see what the NCAA actually has in mind for the format of the 96-team monstrosity it's poised to foist on the basketball-loving public.

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