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Oh, hey! I guess it’s time to think about tournament expansion again...

The ACC commissioner suggested expansion of the field of 68, among other things. Here’s what that jump to 72 teams might actually look like.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-San Diego Practice Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

While visiting Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician on an offseason May afternoon, I came across Andrew Pregler’s post centered around a Luke DeCock News-Observer story about several potential changes ACC commissioner John Swofford wants the NCAA to adopt in response to the Rice Commission’s proposals for fixing college basketball. Pregler’s story focuses on the most germane of these for the purposes of this site—NCAA Tournament expansion. And I wanted to expand upon it a bit.

Swofford’s proposal isn’t anything terribly radical. He’s not calling for a move to 96 teams or 128 or 351. Instead, it calls for an expansion of the field by four—from 68 to 72. In other words, the current First Four would be doubled. For the purposes of this post, I’m dubbing this proposal the “First Eight.” The commissioner, per DeCock’s story, suggests setting up a second First Four event, perhaps at a Western site, as the mechanism for expansion. (So much for the idea of having tournament games at the Palestra or Hinkle Fieldhouse. Sigh.)

Update: So why exactly isn’t expansion (to 72 or another number) not crazy?

Expansion kind of makes sense because it would give more teams an opportunity to compete for a championship (or win shares, if we’re being honest) without diluting the product too much or making the regular season much more meaningless. Let me use numbers to explain how.

For starters, we aren’t talking about an NBA or NHL type playoff system where more than half of the teams make the postseason. Going to 72, we aren’t even at the level of MLB or the NFL, where a third or more of the teams advance. Currently, 68 of Division I’s 351 teams reach the tournament, that’s 19.37%. Expanding to by four teams merely boosts that percentage to 20.5%. And when you consider that the Savannah State Tigers are dropping down to Division 2, while the Cal Baptist Lancers and North Alabama Lions are moving up, eventually 72 of 352 Division I teams would qualify, resulting in an ever so slight drop to 20.45%.

And the growth of Division I is an important factor here. As commenter blueman2 mentioned in a comment on the post that started this whole thing, tournament expansion hasn’t kept up with Division I expansion. If we were to keep the same qualification percentage from 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams with 282 Division I members, we would have to place nearly 23% of teams in the NCAA field. With 351 D1 teams in 2018, 72 isn’t enough to meet that mark—you’d have to expand the field all the way to 80!

Looking at other Division I men’s sports, men’s basketball sends a relatively low percentage of participating teams to its championship tournament. (Note that I’m not counting volleyball and water polo since their championships may include teams from outside D1.)

  • Men’s hockey: 16 spots for 60 teams (26.27%)
  • Men’s lacrosse: 17 for 71 (23.9%)
  • Men’s soccer: 48 for 203 (23.7%)
  • Baseball: 64 for 298 (21.5%)
  • FCS football: 24 for 124 (19.35%)
  • Men’s basketball: currently 68 for 351 (19.3%), potential 72 for 351 (20.5%)
  • FBS football: 4 for 129 (3.1%)

Even with expansion, men’s basketball will still send a lower percentage of teams to its postseason than any other D1-only men’s team sport that’s not football. And that’s with each and every school in the division playing.

Cut to the chase! How would this work?

To give you a semi-realistic example of what a 72-team NCAA Tournament would look like, I took this year’s field of 68 and added the four No. 1 seeds from the NIT (remember, they’re the first four teams left out of the field)—the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, USC Trojans, Baylor Bears, and Saint Mary’s Gaels. This required the re-bracketing of the field from lines 11 on down.

The First Eight games are all in bold. New teams in the field are represented by asterisks, while teams with a down arrow next to their seed number took a drop in seeding.

1. South (Left) and 2. East (Right)

Atlanta (Thu./Sat.) Boston (Fri./Sun.)
Atlanta (Thu./Sat.) Boston (Fri./Sun.)
Charlotte (Fri./Sun.) Pittsburgh (Thu./Sat.)
16. UMBC (AE) vs. PENN (Ivy) 16. RADFORD (Big South) vs. LIU (NEC)
8. Kansas State 8. Virginia Tech
9. Butler 9. Alabama
Boise (Thu./Sat.) San Diego (Fri./Sun.)
5. KENTUCKY (SEC) 5. West Virginia
4. ARIZONA (Pac-12) 4. Wichita State
↓13. SOUTH DAKOTA ST. (Summit) 13. BUFFALO (MAC)
Dallas (Thu./Sat.) Dallas (Thu./Sat.)
6. Miami (Fla.) 6. Florida
*11. Saint Mary's vs. Baylor 11. UCLA vs. St. Bonaventure
3. Tennessee 3. Texas Tech
14. MONTANA (Big Sky) 14. BUCKNELL (Patriot)
Nashville (Fri./Sun.) Detroit (Fri./Sun.)
7. Nevada 7. Arkansas
10. Texas 10. Butler
2. CINCINNATI (American) 2. Purdue
↓15. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (Southland) ↓15. WRIGHT STATE (Horizon)

4. West (Left) and 3. Midwest (Right)

Los Angeles (Thu./Sat.) Omaha (Fri./Sun.)
Los Angeles (Thu./Sat.) Omaha (Fri./Sun.)
Nashville (Fri./Sun.) Wichita (Thu./Sat.)
1. Xavier 1. KANSAS (Big 12)
16. NCCU (MEAC) vs. Texas Sthn. (SWAC) 16. ↓ IONA (MAAC) vs. ↓ CSUF (Big West)
8. Missouri 8. Seton Hall
9. Florida State 9. N.C. State
Boise (Thu./Sat.) San Diego (Fri./Sun.)
5. Ohio State 5. Clemson
4. GONZAGA (WCC) 4. Auburn
↓13. MURRAY STATE (OVC) 13. UNCG (SoCon)
Wichita (Thu./Sat.) Detroit (Fri./Sun.)
6. Houston 6. TCU
*11. Notre Dame vs. USC 11. Arizona State vs. Syracuse
3. MICHIGAN (Big Ten) 3. Michigan State
Charlotte (Fri./Sun.) Pittsburgh (Thu./Sat.)
7. Texas A&M 7. Rhode Island
10. Providence 10. Oklahoma
2. North Carolina 2. Duke

Note that I adjusted matchups to place teams in a more geographically-convenient fashion based on the updated seed list, so not all First Round matchups remain the same here, even if a team didn’t drop a seed line.

Level with us. This probably means more places for power conference teams, right?

Yes. In this scenario, the only new mid-major in the field is Saint Mary’s, with the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 increasing their bid totals as shown below.

Bids by Conference

Conference Bids Teams (in Seed List Order)
Conference Bids Teams (in Seed List Order)
ACC 10 Virginia (auto bid), North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Florida State, Syracuse (First Eight), Notre Dame (First Eight)
SEC 8 Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky (auto bid), Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama
Big 12 8 Kansas (auto bid), Texas Tech, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor (First Eight)
Big East 6 Villanova (auto bid), Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler, Providence
Big Ten 4 Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan (auto bid), Ohio State
Pac-12 4 Arizona (auto bid), UCLA (First Eight), Arizona State (First Eight), USC (First Eight)
American 3 Cincinnati (auto bid), Wichita State, Houston
Atlantic 10 3 Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure (First Eight), Davidson (auto bid)
MW 2 Nevada, San Diego State (auto bid)
WCC 2 Gonzaga (auto bid), Saint Mary's (First Eight)
One-bid leagues 22

Making matters worse for the mids, only one, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, ranked among the NIT’s two and three seeds, and, therefore, among the first eight left out in this scenario.


St. Bonaventure Louisville
Arizona State Oklahoma State
Syracuse Marquette
Notre Dame Middle Tennessee
Saint Mary's Stanford
Baylor Oregon

I think expanding by four more teams, but no further, might add a little more balance to the field. Financially, it might also be a boost to the mid-major conferences as well, as now four of them would be guaranteed a win share with a First Four/Eight victory. Plus, with several teams forced to drop a seed line (from 11 to 12 or 13 to 14), higher seeds could encounter more difficult First Round opposition, which might increase the chances for upsets.

What are your thoughts about this proposal? Too much? Not enough? I know, I know. “Go back to 64 teams and stop messing with the best three weeks in sports.”

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