On Jan. 3, an NCAA committee tasked with reexamining the future of major-college sports released 48 pages of wide-ranging recommendations.
Buried amid an array of athlete-friendly ideas was a proposal that would radically alter the crown jewel event that makes much of college athletics possible.
The committee recommended broadening access to Division I championships across all sports to allow more college athletes to experience the joy of the postseason. It advocated expanding championship field sizes in each sport to allow 25% of eligible teams to participate.
If it’s not clear what that would mean for the men’s basketball tournament, the math is simple: Twenty-five percent of 363 Division I teams would be a field of about 90. That’s a substantial increase from the 68-team bracket that has been the norm for more than a decade.
To show how low the bar would be to make a 90-team NCAA tournament, Yahoo Sports bracketologist Michael Lazarus projected which teams would be part of the field this season. Below you’ll find Laz’s projected 68-team field as of Wednesday night and then the 22 additional teams who he says would claim at-large bids if the tournament expanded.
The big takeaway from Laz’s projected 90-team field is how many of the extra spots would go to struggling power-six teams. The worst Villanova team in more than a decade would comfortably make the NCAA tournament. So would 16-win Florida, 17-win Seton Hall and every member of the Big 12. Yes, even sub-.500 Oklahoma.
There are 16 power-six programs among the additional 22 teams, but expansion would help a few teams from traditional one-bid leagues. The perpetually underrated Conference USA would send three teams to the NCAA tournament with North Texas (25-6) and UAB (23-8) joining projected auto-bid winner Florida Atlantic. Valley regular-season champ Bradley would also sneak into a 90-team field as an at-large, as would WAC runner-up Sam Houston.
The final two teams to make Laz’s cut were Dayton and Wake Forest. The first two teams left out were Liberty and Southern Miss. Cue the complaints from Flames and Golden Eagles fans. Whether No. 69 and 70 or No. 91 and 92, there would always be bubble teams left feeling snubbed.
There are a lot of glaring downsides to a 90-team bracket. It waters down the quality of the NCAA tournament field. It reduces the regular season to a seeding contest in the strongest power conferences. In those same conferences, it also mostly disposes of the drama of a bubble team making a conference tournament run.
Here’s a less obvious issue: It could diminish the number of unforgettable Cinderella stories that emerge from the NCAA tournament. With a 90-team field, UMBC doesn’t draw Virginia, Lehigh doesn’t get Duke and St. Peter’s doesn’t face Kentucky. Teams ranked No. 1 to No. 38 would get a bye into the round of 64. Then No. 39 would play No. 90, No. 40 would play No. 89 and so on.
Hope you’re excited for that big opening-round Mississippi State-Fairleigh Dickinson matchup this year! Or Utah State-Vermont!
One potential way around that problem could be awarding conference tournament champions byes, along with the six strongest at-large teams. Then the rest of the at-large teams would all have to face each other in the opening round for the right to advance to the round of 64. Does that format solve all the problems that expanding to 90 would create? No. Think of it more like lipstick on a pig.
While some members of the NCAA’s transformation committee surely had the best intentions trying to allow more athletes to experience March Madness, 90 teams appears to be more than is necessary to crown a true national champion. Double-digit seeds do make deep runs in the men’s tournament and the First Four has produced two Final Four teams since 2011, but since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 only three teams seeded outside the top four in a region have won the title: No. 8 Villanova in 1985, No. 6 Kansas in 1988 and No. 7 Connecticut in 2014.
Expansion is even harder to justify in women’s basketball, where there is less parity at the top of the sport. Only twice has a team seeded outside the top two in its region claimed the title: No. 3 North Carolina in 1994 and No. 3 Tennessee in 1997.
In reality, the best argument for the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments to expand from 68 to 90 teams would be money.
How much more could the NCAA extract from its TV partners if it had an extra round of March Madness to offer? Would that influx of revenue be worth further devaluing the regular season and running the risk of draining some of joy out of March?