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Fear Of A 96 Team Bracket

(Graphic Credit: RushTheCourt.Net)

Before I get back to football, there's one more pressing matter I need to address before the eyes of America turn back to Major League baseball and the endless speculation if Butler head basketball coach Brad Stevens will be heading to fill Holy Cross' sudden vacancy at head coach now that Sean Kearney was terminated after one disappointing year.  (Either that, or he's going to depose ex-Lehigh head basketball coach Billy Taylor at Ball State if David Letterman has his way.)

No, it's the hottest off-the-court topic in the land: whether the heavily-expected merger of the NIT and NCAA Tournament will make March Madness, worse or worser.  Is 64 perfect, and 96 terrible?  Will it mean there will be no more Butlers, as New York Daily News writer Dan Weiss opined?  Is it only about the money, as CBS Sports' Dan Ratto thinks?

Ratto is correct - for what it's worth - since part of it is certainly creating more games to fill more TV time and to give more corporations a chance to spend more money.  But for the Patriot League champions of the world - the little guys - is the 96 team bracket something to fear, or embrace? (more)


There are two aspects that the big-time writers - you know, the guys who get paid the big bucks to have opinions of this stuff - are missing.

First is that there is a precedent.  Football Championship Subdivision recently had a similar problem that the NCAA basketball tournament had.  They had a perfectly symmetrical bracket - 16 teams - and too many conferences to give them all autobids automatically.  By NCAA rule, for every conference that has an autobid to the FCS playoffs, there needs to be an at-large bid as well - the reason being that you can't have more than 50% of the field be autobids.  (You can, however, add more at-larges if you want, which is what the NCAA men's basketball tournament did to make an even 64 and uneven 65-team bracket.)

The late Brenda Weare, then the commissioner of the NEC, had a unique notion: why not just ask for an autobid to the FCS playoffs?  Even though the NEC had never been to the playoffs before, they fit all the criteria.  They were a six team conference and played Division I football.  Their teams had even beaten some of FCS royalty: Delaware and Georgia Southern.  Ultimately, the playoff subcommittee determined that they couldn't deny the NEC a spot, so they expanded the tournament to 24 teams.

It may not seem like this situation is paralleled by today's NCAA tournament, but it is.

There are 31 autobid conferences in the NCAA basketball tournament, and 34 at-large bids to the tournament.  The Great West conference - an unholy basketball alliance stretching from New Jersey to California - will soon be eligible for an autobid as well, and it's expected that as soon as commissioner Ed Grom's conference certificate is dry from the NCAA he'll be faxing his request for the autobid later that morning.   

And when you add to that a potential Big East breakup into two conferences - as has been rumored now for quite some time - you now have a magic number of 33.  33 autobids, plus the NCAA-mandated 33 at-large bids, makes 66 teams.

This means the NCAA tournament is going to be expanded anyway, sooner rather than later.  Even if the Big East doesn't come apart - against all internet chatter, mind - it will be something else that causes the field to mandate 66 teams.  All this talk about money and more money ignores the simple fact that it would take the NCAA breaking their own rules in order to preserve a symmetrical bracket.

Oddly enough, there was similar criticisms of the 24-team FCS playoff bracket - which will have its debut at the conclusion of the 2010 regular season - that you hear being levied against the powers of the NCAA in terms of men's basketball.  In football, some dared think that the NEC didn't deserve an autobid, even though they met all the requirements for having one.  Once that line of questioning died out, it became all about the "perfection" of the 16 team bracket and how it ends right before Christmas.  After the decision to move the game to the day before the BCS Bowl game, even that was mooted as an issue too.

In terms of basketball, while some complain about money, I think it has more to do that folks just tend to like symmetry more than anything else.  Folks criticized the expansion of the NFL's "wild card" to add more teams since it broke the symmetry of the four best teams winning a conference.  Folks wailed about Major League Baseball's addition of a wild card because it would "cheapen the regular season".  (Who wants to go back to the old system in MLB now?)  And face it, a symmetrical bracket looks pretty, there's lots of software to print them out elegantly, and just the idea of the "bracket" for the last 20 years is something that folks seem to like.

Never mind that more schools could get involved in the excitement, or that there could be more basketball to enjoy.  It's all about symmetry.  I'm convinced.

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The thought that "there will be no more Butlers" if the tournament expands is a more serious charge.  Despite the major flaw in that argument - since Butler was clearly a team that would have gotten a first round bye, in every scenario of the 96 team bracket - it's the effect on the Lehigh's, the Robert Morris', and Jackson State's that is ultimately more important to folks like me.  Will they be shafted?  Will they not get their chance?

The short answer is no: Lehigh won the Patriot League tournament, and Lehigh will get an autobid into March Madness.  They may be a 24 seed instead of a 16 seed, but they'd still be in.

But trying to make sense of it all, I conducted a small experiment.  Taking the midwest region (Lehigh's), I took the "midwest" bracket of this year's NIT and grafted it onto the NCAA tournament.  Assuming seeds 1-8 would still get the bye, I took seeds 9 through 24, ranked them all by Real Time RPI and looked to see who Lehigh would have played.

Lehigh - the new No. 24 seed - would have instead played No. 9 seed Northern Iowa.  No disrespect to the Panthers, but a matchup against Northern Iowa (and an almost certain loss) would mean a lot less to Lehigh than their spirited effort against the No. 1 team in the nation up until that point, Kansas.  I have no doubt that UNI would still have made their deep run in the playoffs - knocking off Lehigh first, then UNLV, and then Kansas - but I can't deny that playing Kansas was a special moment that I wouldn't have traded to play UNI.

Still, in future years the Patriot League champion could benefit, especially if a strong contender were upset in the postseason tournament.  While it wouldn't have happened this year, in the future there could very well be a chance that two Patriot League teams make the field, something that is a mortal lock of not happening with a 64-team tournament.

And in a 96 team world, would a win over a, say, 21-12 Florida team in the first round mean less than a win over a, say, 19-9 UCSB?  It may not be as great as knocking off a No. 1 seed - but it would still be a sweet victory that I'd bring up every single year, probably, until I die.  And also, every team that makes the tournament has a chance to knock off a No. 1 seed - they just have to get there.  If you subscribe to the believe that a 96 team tournament dilutes the quality of the tournament, you don't believe that the small fish belong at all.  Don't believe in the sanctity of the the 64 team tournament, and then turn around and say a 16 seed will never beat a 1 seed.  Either you can believe it can happen - in which case a 96 team tournament will give more lower seeds a chance to win, not less - or you don't, in which case you should be for a BCS-type system where Kansas plays Kentucky for the national championship at the end of the regular season and then that's that.

That's why I'm for the 96 team bracket.  Like in FCS football, the more people at the dance, the merrier.  Small schools, BCS football schools, Horizon League schools - anything that gives the Patriot League more opportunities to win more tournament games is OK by me.  Even if they have to beat Northern Iowa to get there.

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