I wouldn’t be worth much as a basketblogger if I didn’t blog about the proposed expansion of the NCAA tournament. Frankly, I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. I think it’s a terrible idea, and just about everyone I’ve heard speak about it thinks it’s a terrible idea, too. To the extent I have any thoughts about it that haven’t already been raised by other people, these are those thoughts:
1. The top 8 seeds would get screwed. Right now, the #1 seeds essentially have a bye in the first round. And the #2 seeds win their first-round games about 95% of the time. But, if the field is expanded, and the top 32 teams get byes, then, by the time the #1 and #2 seeds are playing their first game, they aren’t playing the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Eastern Tennessee State. Instead, they are playing a team that already won a tournament game. Thus, they’ll be playing tougher opponents.
In other words, the 64 teams that wind up in the round of 64 will come much closer to representing the 64 best teams in the country than the current field of 64 comes to representing the 64 best teams in the country (because the current field of 64 includes the champions of terrible conferences — teams that will get eliminated before the top 32 seeds take the court in the new format). To me, this is a pretty big step back for the #1 and #2 seeds, and, therefore, the expansion would make the regular season less important (because it minimizes the award for getting a top seed).
2. The whole idea of the expansion, as I understand it, is to make more money. (I know that the NCAA has some half-hearted pitch about it being better for the players, but all of the commentators I have listened to say it’s about the money.) I’m not going to grapple with whether that’s a legitimate motivation; that’s a different topic for a different day. For now, I’ll assume that it’s legit. My question is why the NCAA thinks that this expansion will actually make more money.
Right now, the first two days of the tournament are exciting because they include some close, quality matchups, like 8/9, 7/10, and 6/11 games. As the tournament is currently constructed, an 8/9 game involves a team ranked between 29 and 32, and a team ranked between 33 and 36, of all the teams in the tournament. The 7/10 game involves a team ranked between 25 and 28 and a team ranked between 37 and 40.
Well, the first two days of the expanded tournament will have no such matchups. Any team ranked 1-8 will have a bye. So the best teams playing on these first two days will be #9 seeds. And they’ll be playing… wait for it… teams seeded #24 (in other words, teams ranked between 93 and 96 of all the tournament teams). The “best” matchups will be games played between #16 and #17 seeds.
Ummm… why the hell does the NCAA assume that people will be excited to watch these games? Under the current system, people take extended lunches, or leave early from work — or even take the whole two days off from work — to watch the games. Does the NCAA think that people are going to do that to watch a 9 v 24 game? A 16 v 17 game?
More importantly, why does the NCAA assume that people will buy tickets to go to those games? When I watch the games now, I’m amazed at how many empty seats there are. Is there any reason to think that the seats will sell better for the expanded tournament?
3. If the idea here is simply to have more tournament games, under the thinking that tournament games bring in money and more tournament games will bring in more money, then why not go to a double-elimination tournament? The logistics would be somewhat difficult, but I don’t see why the NCAA couldn’t do away with conference tournaments, so the NCAA tournament starts a week earlier. That would allow for there to be a loser’s bracket without having the tournament last much longer into April than it already does.
Perhaps it sounds like a wild idea to move away from the single-elimination format, but, once you’re moving away from the current system simply to bring in more money, I think that a double-elimination tournament is no less crazy than expanding the field to 96.