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Reimagining College Basketball’s Postseason

Tournament expansion talk has been all the rage for the last few weeks. I’ve gone in a slightly different direction.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four City Scenes
We’re going to need a slightly bigger bracket.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To start 2023 off with some controversy, the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee recommended and the DI Board then endorsed a recommendation that championship fields in team sports be expanded to include up to 25 percent of the total number of participating schools—as long as at least 200 DI schools sponsor the sport. Implementing such a change for men’s basketball—currently sponsored by 351 full Division I members (with 11 schools reclassifying up and Hartford dropping down to Division II)—would lead to an 88-team field, with a 90- or 91-team event on deck once Lindenwood, Queens, Southern Indiana, Stonehill, and Texas A&M-Commerce earn postseason eligibility in time for 2027’s edition of March Madness.

If you think back to the last time NCAA Tournament expansion was discussed, after 2010’s final 65-team bracket, a 96-team field was proposed, derided, and eventually discarded in favor of the 68-team field we have now. I wasn’t a fan then, I’m still not a fan now.

With 338 full Division I members for the 2010-11 season, an NCAA Tournament featuring a a quarter of these teams would have meant an 85-team field. Now that a 96-team or even 128-team field is back under consideration, there’s again been some outcry from those who would rather keep things they way they are—even if the current format is a nonsensical, artificial creation of its own. As John Gasaway wrote in his post in favor of expansion:

The perfectly symmetrical NCAA bracket died on March 13, 2001, when Northwestern State defeated Winthrop 71-67 in Dayton. It was called the “play-in game that no one wanted.” Symmetry was sacrificed in favor of minting a 32nd automatic bid while keeping the number of at-large invites at 33. As of 2011 three more at-large slots were added. Until the field expands to 128, symmetry is gone. That toothpaste is out of the tube.

This bit of potted history is offered as a reminder that the current size of the field reflects no one’s ideal. Like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the number 68 is a dusty relic born of conflict, exhaustion, and a long and tense standoff. Yet today that number is reflexively and furiously defended to the hilt as if it were handed down on stone tablets by Naismith.

On this website, we embrace imperfection. We also accept that sound and fury may indeed signify nothing. Indeed, as Matt Norlander’s reporting for CBS indicates, there’s not much appetite for any expansion at the moment, and there may never be for expansion to 96 or 128—with 80 acting as the upper limit of palatability.

80 ... 80 ... This number gave me an idea, since it’s 16 more than the perfect 64-team bracket, and would require just 12 new teams to grow beyond 68. So, I set out to reimagine the college basketball postseason so it would meet a few simple conditions:

  • Respect the regular season—increasing its importance if possible
  • Value conference tournaments’ unique position in college sports
  • Bring the NIT back to a level of importance and
  • Keep the format as familiar as possible.

What I came up with is an 80-team tournament that borrows from European sports (most notably, soccer) by partially merging the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

First, Let’s Fix Auto Bids

Currently, the 32 automatic bids in the field of 68 go to conference tournament winners. This leads to occasional discussions of how to include mid- or low-major teams that put together perfect or one-loss regular seasons, then manage to slip on a banana peel as they attempt to clear one of their final remaining hurdles.

Naturally, this is not a problem for power conferences. Since the 2011 expansion, just one Power 6 regular season champion was not selected to the field, Washington infamous 2011-12 squad. Curiously, only the 2018-19 Pac-12 has come close to repeating the feat.

Expanding our view further to all multi-bid conferences in the 68-team era, outside of that 2011-12 Husky team, every regular season champ earned a bid, even if some, like 2011 UAB, 2013 Middle Tennessee, and 2019 Belmont, had to play in the First Four.

So, the first change I’m making is flipping the auto bid status quo. Now, regular season winners—conference tournament No. 1 seeds—get the auto bid, while conference tournament champions are added to the at-large pool for evaluation, with those not selected guaranteed a spot in our slightly expanded NIT, as eliminated regular season champs are today. Thus, consistent success will be rewarded over getting hot over a two-to-four-game span.

How Would This Tweak Have Changed 2022’s Field?

Of 2022’s 32 conference tournament No. 1 seeds:

  • 15 cut down the nets to claim the league double
  • 5 were selected at-large—four teams from the Power 6 and Davidson from the Atlantic 10
  • 1 earned its conference’s auto bid because the tournament winner wasn’t yet NCAA/NIT eligible (Jacksonville State)
  • 11 failed to win the tournament and were relegated to the NIT.

The number of NIT auto bids has been relatively consistent since the NCAA field expanded in 2011. It’s never been higher than 2016’s 15 and has totaled between 10 and 12 entrants seven times. Note that when the NIT first awarded auto bids to eliminated regular season champs in the four seasons before the NCAA field of 68 (2007-2010), those numbers were even lower. Eight teams dropped down into the NIT in three of those years, with a mere five being relegated in 2009.

With 11 conference tournament No. 1 seeds replacing tournament winners in our hypothetical 2022 field, we have some changes, but no at-large team drops out because of our 12-team expansion to 80.

  • Regular-season champs IN: Long Beach State (Big West), Towson (CAA), North Texas (C-USA), Cleveland State (Horizon), Princeton (Ivy), Iona (MAAC), Toledo (MAC), Northern Iowa (MVC), Nicholls State (Southland), Alcorn State (SWAC), Texas State (Sun Belt)

What About Those Conference Tournament Winners?

The 11 tournament winners from these conferences join the five winners of multi-bid conference tournaments in the reimagined at-large pool—replacing their leagues’ regular season champs. This includes tournament champs UAB and Loyola Chicago, who drop down as North Texas and Northern Iowa now own the auto bids for Conference USA and the Missouri Valley as conference tournament No. 1 seeds,

These teams will be evaluated for selection for the 80-team field. While seven made the cut, nine will drop down into our new NIT.

  • Conference tournament champs who stay IN (7): Virginia Tech (ACC), Richmond (A 10), Villanova (Big East), Iowa (Big Ten), UAB (C-USA), Loyola Chicago (MVC), Tennessee (SEC)
  • Conference tournament champs who drop into the NIT (9): Cal State Fullerton (Big West), Delaware (CAA), Wright State (Horizon), Yale (Ivy), Saint Peter’s (MAAC), Akron (MAC), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Southland), Texas Southern (SWAC), Georgia State (Sun Belt)

Redesigning The Bracket

That brings us to how the 80-team field will work. For this, I turn to Ken Pomeroy.

That approach gives us a bracket that looks like this. Auto bid holders (32) are in bold. Spots filled during our expanded Preliminary Round are noted in yellow.

The result of placing 48 teams—32 auto bid winners and 16 at-large selections—into the field means the top six seed lines and lines 12 through 16 are filled. However, there are four auto bid winners who weren’t seeded in either of these groups. Murray State was a 7, Boise State an 8, and Davidson a 10. We also have a regular-season champ who ended up higher than an 11 in my analysis—North Texas. So, I will have to bracket around them.

With 48 teams bracketed into our 80-team field, we are left with 32 teams playing for 16 spots in the 64-team final NCAA bracket.

  • The 16 victors be bracketed into the field as 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 seeds.
  • The 16 losers will drop down to be the 1 through 4 seeds in a rescheduled, expanded, restructured NIT.

So, Who Are These Extra At-Large Teams?

Borrowing from Gasaway this time:

Expanding the 2022 field would have watered it up

Even in an expanded field that didn’t happen, the weakest KenPom at-large by far would have been real-life No. 11 seed Rutgers. This isn’t to say the committee shouldn’t have given the Scarlet Knights a bid. It is to say at-large bubbles for both a 68- and, for example, an 80-team bracket do and would center on the same tranche of teams in the 30s, 40s, and 50s at KenPom.

Gasaway’s eight new at-large selections are the NIT’s No. 1 and 2 seeds—Dayton, Oklahoma, SMU, Texas A&M, Xavier, North Texas, BYU, and Wake Forest. However, since I handled auto bids differently than he did and the Mean Green won the C-USA regular season title, they don’t count as an at-large. Even after adding seven NIT 1 and 2 seeds and worthy tournament champions in Loyola Chicago, Richmond, UAB, and Virginia Tech to the field as at-large teams, there is still room for three of the NIT’s 3 seeds. Thanks to higher NET rankings, VCU, Mississippi State, and Florida make the field at the expense of Saint Louis.

Amazingly, all three of these teams still rank ahead of Rutgers in KenPom’s Selection Sunday rankings! The Scarlet Knights were 74th, with the Rams 67th, Bulldogs 46th, and Gators 56th.

While the 68-team real world bracket featured 10 multi-bid conferences, our 80-team field features 12. The SEC was the only power conference to pick up more than one new bid, while three non-power conferences—the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, and Missouri Valley—saw their bid totals double.

Big Ten: 9 (9)
SEC: 9 (6)
Big 12: 7 (6)
Big East: 7 (6)
ACC: 6 (5)
A 10: 4 (2)
MW: 4 (4)
WCC: 4 (3)
American: 3 (2)
Pac-12: 3 (3)
C-USA: 2 (1)
MVC: 2 (1)

But will expansion always be a positive for mid-majors? Maybe. Maybe not. Recent trends are good, but there are recent reasons to not be quite so optimistic.

Since the expansion to 68 in 2011, the number of non-Power 6 teams found in the groups of eight on either side of the cut line has varied greatly. While 2022 (6 of 16), 2021 (10 of 16) 2016 (10 of 16), and 2015 (8 of 16) were mid-major friendly, 2019 and 2014 (3 of 16) and 2018 and 2017 (2 of 16) were decidedly not.

What Does The Final Bracket Look Like?

As you can see above, I took the 2022 bracket and first added the new automatic bid winners, seeding them roughly where I had them in my projections before they were eliminated from their conference tournaments. As a result, some conference champs, like Iona and Towson ended up in a better position than their respective leagues’ tournament winners did. In the majority of cases though, there was very little difference between the two teams’ positions on the seed list.

With 16 “First Four”/Preliminary Round games, playing only in Dayton isn’t practical. So, in the 80-team bracket, Thursday/Saturday sites will now likely host Tuesday games, while Friday/Sunday sites will do the same on Wednesday. I say ‘likely’ because the way pods are distributed can complicate matters.

In 2022, two No. 1 seeds were slotted for Fort Worth, while two No. 4 seeds anchored proceedings in Buffalo. This created an issue, as all of the 8 and 9 seeds in the bracket are filled by preliminary winners, while none of the 12 seeds fit within this category. So, Fort Worth would host four games on Tuesday, while Buffalo would be the only site with none. Sure, I could have shipped either Kansas or Baylor to Western New York, but that defeats the purpose of keeping higher seeds closer to home when possible.

You could have a TV schedule that looks like this:

  • Tuesday afternoon: Fort Worth (2 games) and Indianapolis (2 games)
  • Tuesday evening: Fort Worth (2 games) and Portland (2 games)
  • Wednesday afternoon: Greenville (2 games) and Milwaukee (2 games)
  • Wednesday evening: Pittsburgh (2 games) and San Diego (2 games)

One rule that I implemented was that no lower seed could face a higher seed assigned to preliminary round. To circumvent this, I moved Boise State to seed line 7 to pair it against fellow auto bid winner Davidson, with Michigan State dropping into an 8/9 preliminary game.

With only four at-large teams in the First Four, it’s not an issue to pair them against each other based on the seed list, since they’re close enough in the overall ranking. However, an expanded preliminary round creates a bigger gap—ranging from NCAA 7 seeds to NIT 3 seeds. So, I bracketed matchups in this fashion without giving teams preliminary seed numbers.

  • No. 7 seeds (2 of 4): 2 NCAA 7 seeds (Ohio State and USC) paired against an NCAA 12 seed (Richmond) and an NIT 3 seed (Florida)
  • No. 8 seeds (4 of 4): 1 NCAA 7 seed (Michigan State) and 3 NCAA 8 seeds (North Carolina, San Diego State, and Seton Hall) paired against 2 NIT 3 seeds (Miss. State and VCU) and 2 NIT 2 seeds (BYU and Wake Forest)
  • No. 9 seeds (4 of 4): 4 NCAA 9 seeds (Creighton, Marquette, Memphis, and TCU) paired against 1 NCAA 12 seed (UAB), 2 NIT 1 seeds (SMU and Texas A&M), and 1 NIT 2 seed (Xavier).
  • No. 10 seeds (3 of 4): 3 NCAA 10 seeds (Loyola, Miami, and San Francisco) paired against the two remaining NIT 1 seeds (Dayton and Oklahoma) and 1 NCAA First Four team (Notre Dame)
  • No. 11 seeds (3 of 4): 5 of the final 2022 at-large teams (Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan, Rutgers, and Wyoming) and Virginia Tech (an at-large in this tournament despite winning the ACC Tournament) are paired against each other.

That gives us a bracket that looks like this. I tried to keep this version faithful to 2022’s actual bracket, but I had to make some adjustments to avoid rematches and to get BYU into both a Thursday/Saturday pod and region. Unfortunately, that put them in Gonzaga’s pod in Portland.

  • Preliminary matchups are highlighted yellow.
  • Regular-season champs/auto bid winners are bolded.
  • Conference tournament winners selected at-large are italicized.

Okay, So What Are You Doing To The NIT?

I quickly realized that an 80-team NCAA field might suck the life out of what’s already a once-great event that’s searching for relevance. So, I figured that treating giving the top of the NIT bracket the Champions League/Europa League treatment, while keeping the concept of auto bids might be something to explore.

  • The 16 teams that fall in the NCAA Preliminary Round drop into the NIT and are slotted as its 1 and 2 seeds.
  • The remainder of the field is made up of the conference tournament winners who were not selected for the expanded NCAA field (9 in 2022) and at-large teams.
  • However, a postseason where 80 teams begin in the NCAA with only 16 beginning in the NIT leads to a loss of postseason opportunities, as there are only 96 teams selected compared to the 100 involved in a 68-team NCAA and 32-team NIT.
  • So, expanding the NIT field back to 40, as was the case between 2002 and 2006, is necessity. Not only may some seasons feature more conference tournament auto bid winners than a 32-team field can handle, but such expansion helps keep at-large bids around. With 80 teams beginning in the NCAAs and 24 beginning in the expanded NIT, we have slightly expanded the number of teams in the postseason to 104.

What Does The NIT Bracket Look Like? How Would It Work?

  • The 40-team NIT field would be anchored by the 16 NCAA preliminary round losers, the top eight of which would be No. 1 seeds, who would each a five-team pod.
  • With the No. 1 and No. 2 seed lines filled by teams eliminated from the NCAAs and two teams playing for a No. 4 seed in each pod, only the eight No. 3 seeds would earn a direct place in the NIT Round of 32.

Yellow highlighted boxes represent the 16 NCAA preliminary round games. The red boxes represent the NIT preliminary round games for No. 4 seeds. No. 3 seeds won’t play an extra game, so they’re found in white cells.

  • Since the NIT’s usual first round dates—the Tuesday through Thursday after Selection Sunday—are now filled by the NCAA Preliminary Round, these pods will be scheduled for the days between the NCAA Tournament’s first and second weekends. This will allow the NIT Committee time to properly bracket teams and get them to their sites.
  • The NIT’s Final Four becomes an Elite Eight with a schedule inspired by many of ESPN’s early season tournaments: quarterfinals on day one (Wednesday) and semifinals on day two (Thursday), with the championship after a rest day (Saturday, during the afternoon before the Final Four itself). This would give us a postseason schedule that looks like this (with changes in bold).

Week 1, Tuesday and Wednesday: NCAA Preliminary Round
Week 1, Thursday and Friday: NCAA First Round
Week 1, Saturday and Sunday: NCAA Second Round; NIT Preliminary Round (for No. 4 seeds) and Round of 32

Week 2, Monday: NIT Round of 32
Week 2, Tuesday and Wednesday: NIT Round of 16
Week 2, Thursday and Friday: NCAA Sweet 16
Week 2, Saturday and Sunday, NCAA Elite 8

Week 3, Wednesday: NIT Quarterfinals
Week 3, Thursday: NIT Semifinals
Week 3, Saturday: NIT Championship, NCAA Final Four
Week 4, Monday: NCAA Championship

Additional schedule flexibility or increases in streaming may be necessary with the women’s postseason happening simultaneously

Now, A Twist

To make the NIT a more worthwhile endeavor, both its champion and the defending NCAA champion will be guaranteed at least a place in the next season’s NCAA Tournament Preliminary Round.

But There’s A Caveat!

These defending champs must finish the regular season with a record of over .500 against Division I teams. If a team fails to do this, it won’t end up in the field. If a team goes in the other direction and wins an auto bid or finishes in at-large position, the NCAA or NIT auto bid spot will go away for the season.

However, with an expanded field this shouldn’t lead to much controversy. Of the three 68-team era NCAA champions that failed to make the field the next season, two (2013 Kentucky and 2015 UConn) ended up in the NIT (as a 1 and 4 seed, respectively), while the third (2020 Virginia) would have been selected had there been an NCAA Tournament.

Things are a little dicier for the past 10 NIT champs. Two (2016 Stanford and 2019 Penn State) finished at or below .500 and wouldn’t have gotten in. On the other hand, four (2012 Wichita State, 2014 Baylor, 2018 TCU, and 2022 Memphis) all reached the NCAAs, the same goes for 2020 Texas (who was selected in 2021). Then there are 2013 Stanford and 2017 George Washington, that Cardinal team ended up back in the NIT, while the Colonials ended up in the CBI.

In other words, most defending NCAA and NIT champs take care of business, meaning this benefit will be limited.

What do you think about this plan? What do you want to see out of tournament expansion if it happens?