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Reforming the Tourney, Part 1 - Champs Only?

It's been a busy post-Final Four week for me, thanks to a visit from one of my friends from my undergrad days at UF.  I'll be back posting more regularly on the college hoops topics of the day on Monday.  In the meantime, I'd like to make the first post in what's going to be a series here on Blogging the Bracket over the next few weeks.  

Now that we're just out of the postseason, it's time to take a rather in-depth look at a topic that's often talked about, reforming March Madness.  It's something that, like I said, people love to talk about, but you rarely, if ever see what the reality of these tournament reform proposals would look like.  This is the void I intend to fill as I kick off my offseason coverage here on the site.  More after the jump...




To start this endeavor, we must go back in time, to the period between 1951 and 1974, when the tournament field was dominated by conference champions.  Every once in awhile, you'll hear someone on television say that "We need to go back to the old days, when you had to win your conference to get in."  Indeed, during this time, while there were at-large berths, the overwhelming majority went to independents, who were far more numerous then.  The remainder of at-large bids went to conference champions whose leagues didn't meet the NCAA requirements for earning an auto bid.  Basically, that meant that there were no teams selected who really met our current definition of "at-large."  

Since we currently have 31 Division I conferences, a bracket composed of conference champions is certainly doable. But how would it compare to the 65-team field in terms of competition--not just in terms of close games, but also in terms of the number of teams who have a legit chance to win--and watchability.

Auto Bids-Only Bracket

This bracket was remarkably simple to construct.  I simply took the 31 teams who automatically qualified for the tournament and added Kansas, the defending champion (going old school FIFA World Cup-style) to establish an even 32 team field.

The teams are seeded in the approximate order they were seeded in the real tournament.  Since there are five 16 seeds in the real bracket, one of them, East Tennessee State--since they should've been higher in the first place, moved from the 8 seed line to the 7 seed line.  This created a domino effect in the bottom five lines of the bracket.  15 seeds fill the majority of the 7 line, 14 seeds fill the majority of the 6 line, and the majority of 5 seeds are 13s.  

Since there are no pesky at-large teams to deal with, it was a bit easier to keep teams closer to their natural regions.  However, things still aren't perfect.  For example, Memphis still couldn't play in the South since they were hosting and Portland State couldn't be the 5 seed in the West because they would then play in Portland.  I had to make adjustments in this case.  There was also a lack of regional diversity among the 6 and 8 seeds.  It's not quite so easy to move teams up or down a line in a reduced field, as the disparity between teams is larger.  

Regular Season Champions

This bracket is rather similar, but instead of allowing conference tournaments to determine the auto bids for 30 of the 31 conferences, slots went to each league's regular season champions. Since Kansas won the Big 12 regular season title, the 32nd slot in this bracket goes to the tournament-eligible Independent team with the best record, Chicago State.

The top four seed lines in this bracket are improved by the addition of teams like Xavier, Butler, LSU, and Davidson.  With the elimination of the Opening Round and addition of Chicago State, two teams who would be destined for 16 seeds in reality's bracket and 8 seeds in this one move up to the 7 (or 15) line.  Those two teams are Big South double champs Radford and Atlantic Sun regular season champ Jacksonville.

The Bottom Line

Of course, a tournament with such a heavy focus on automatic bids isn't coming back. In fact, it's been the NCAA's policy that "no more than 50 percent of the tournament berths be filled by automatic qualifiers" since 1981.  The CBS contract is a big reason for this, as there aren't enough matchups in these brackets to satisfy the majority of fans who spend most of their time following the BCS conferences, which would cause ratings to sink like a stone.  The NCAA and host institutions would also lose ticket revenue, as the 16 sessions on the Thursday and Friday of the first weekend would disappear, while only the eight weekend sessions would remain.  And of course, the major conferences wouldn't stand for the loss of postseason berths and the revenue and prestige decline that would follow.

From a competitive standpoint, since there is less of a major conference focus in these brackets, mid- and low-majors would get increased exposure and more chances to advance.  Unfortunately, there is likely to be a limit to how far they can go, as the few major conference teams in the tournament would have an advantage as well because of that same decrease in the number of major conference teams involved.  The major wild card would be the composition of crowds at first round sites, since those games would now take place exclusively on weekend days and there would be more chances for teams to play at sites closer to home.

Next time, I'll take a look at what happens if the NCAA decided to go in a completely different direction.