|The Extremely Little Dance.
Note: we first ran this back in June 2011 to fill time in the summer. The first two installments of the series can be found here and here, but the basic idea is just the thought experiment of how the continued expansion of the NCAA tournament might look. Enjoy.
Quick, how many of last year's Final Four can you name? I can name them all, because I have spent way too much time looking at postseason basketball for the last month or so. Now, how many of the last four teams in the NIT can you name? Can you name four teams that played in the CBI? Do you know what the CIT is, or when it was held? The point is that there's a lot of postseason college basketball out there, but not all of it is relevant. Heck, the only think I know about the NIT is that Dayton gets to go every year. The point is, college basketball is in danger of slipping into an endless morass of Insight.com Bowl-type Duquesne-v.-Montana matchups that nobody cares about because they have no bearing on the eventual national champion. Until now.
First off, it's everybody in the pool. There are 346 D-1 NCAA teams, and they're all participating. There are several successful tournaments around the world that take this approach, from the Kentucky and Delaware high school basketball tournaments to the FA Cup in English soccer. I see no reason that, properly executed, this couldn't work for the NCAA as well. Obviously, the NIT, CIT, and CBI will all be eliminated. The conference tournaments remain intact, with some scheduling adjustments. I've had to make the start dates on most of the conference tournaments a little earlier, but I took pains to keep the formats intact.
|The symmetry of a 64-team tourney is perfect.
Why all the emphasis on conference tournaments if everyone gets in anyway? Well, as I mentioned before, I'm a purist, and I don't think I'm alone in that. Even though we're going to preface the thing with a month-long frenzy of basketball, there's still something magical about being in that field of 64. The NCAA currently honors 31 conferences with automatic bids into the Big Dance, and that remains intact under Mega March Madness. You win your conference tournament, you get a free pass to the Thu/Sat or Fri/Sun pods that are comprised of the final 64 teams in contention for the title.
This is as good a time as any to dig into how the tourney field will really be built. As teams are eliminated from their conference tournaments, they are added to the national tournament field. The traditionally weaker conferences will start their tournaments first, while the big boys will be added to the pot as the tournament develops. With 31 slots in the field of 64 already taken by the automatic bids, every team in the country will be battling to either make the field of 64 via their conference tourney or dropping into the national tournament to claw for one of the remaining 33 bids. I know this sounds a little more confusing than it actually is, so I'll explain.
The national tournament will take place in four stages leading up to the field of 64. In each of these, the pool will consist of the survivors from the previous round and new teams added by virtue of their elimination in the conference tournament. The teams will be seeded (I personally prefer KenPom's formula for both accuracy and ease of use, but the NCAA isn't shy about putting together secret ranking systems) for each round, and away they'll go. Listing out everybody who enters at every round would be really laborious, so I've broken it down for you here. The first stage of games, involving 130 teams eliminated from their respective conference tournaments no later than 12 days before Selection Sunday, takes place at neutral sites that Thursday, 10 days before the blessed event.
|The first week of Mega March Madness. For simplicity's sake, I used the dates of March 2011.
Three things come up here. The first is the fact that that is a lot of games. It is, but you're not going to get through 346 teams without having some intense weekends. Also, who's going to complain about a ton of college basketball in March? The second is location. I was initially concerned about travel and hosting costs until I saw that Duquesne and Montana were squaring off in the first round of the CIT. If they can summon the pathos and funding to handle that, I don't think making it to the NCAA tournament is a problem. The third is selection. The teams in Pool 1 are there by virtue of their conferences' performances over the last five years. Ken Pomeroy, ESPN's RPI, and the Massey ratings were all consulted to pull this rating together. The minnows are in the pool at this point.
The second stage will take place the weekend before Selection Sunday. By this time, the bigger conferences' tournaments are getting underway and most of the smaller conferences' tournament will be wrapping up. The 65 winners from the first stage will be joined by the 27 teams in Pool 2, who were eliminated from conference contention over the same time period that the first stage was taking place. Seeding will reshuffle the deck, and another stage of games will go off.
The third stage will be the played the Wednesday before Selection Sunday. It will involve 46 teams that have made it out of the second stage, plus 98 newly-eliminated teams looking for redemption and a way back in. This will likely be the first stage at which teams that had a legitimate hope for at-large inclusion under the current system will enter the fray. Rather than licking their wounds from an early exit from the conference tourneys, they'll be suiting up and looking to beat the brakes off of whoever they draw.
|The second week of Mega March Madness. That's a lot of basketball.
The fourth stage will be conducted the Friday and Saturday before Selection Sunday. At this point, every team not earning an at-large bid will either have been eliminated or be involved in play - all conference tournaments will be done. This will give us 72 survivors from the third stage, plus 60 new teams. Teams that lost conference semi-finals or championships will be regrouping for another go at postseason glory while potential Cinderellas fight to win the one more game that will keep them alive until Selection Sunday. It's college basketball at its finest in a grand and extended fashion.
The more astute of you will have probably noticed that 66 winners will emerge from the fourth stage. Coupled with the 31 automatic bids handed out through the course of March, that leaves us with 97 teams alive on Selection Sunday, which is superficially impossible to break down into any sort of meaningful bracket. This is easily solved though. The 31 auto bid teams are slotted into the 64-team bracket we all know and love; the 66 other teams play to fill the 33 remaining slots. That means, rather than running Thur/Sat or Fri/Sun, each pod will have games going Tue/Thur/Sat or Wed/Fri/Sun. The most magical weekend of the year has now been extended by two more days.
So there you have it, sports fans. The meaningless secondary tournaments are eliminated, every team has a chance to play in the national tournament, and March is inundated with meaningful basketball. There are a lot of moving parts here, so I tried to clarify it as much as possible with the graphics and by using last year's conference tournament formats and dates. This has been a ton of fun to put together, and I hope you enjoy looking over it as much as I enjoyed working on it. Feel free to hit me with any questions you have in the comments section. We'll be back next Monday with some concluding thoughts.