How an All-Inclusive NCAA Tournament Could Work

NCAA Tournament

College basketball fans received promising news a month ago when Mark Emmert got behind the idea of a bubble for the NCAA Tournament. However, no decisions have been made on what the regular season will look like at this time. The latest proposal came from the ACC basketball coaches on Wednesday. They voted unanimously to propose that all 346 eligible Division 1 programs make the Big Dance this season.

Fans and experts alike voiced their opinions on the matter. Many scoffed at the idea of including every team. The tournament would lose its luster. The regular season would be meaningless. Regardless of anybody’s opinion, the logistics are the biggest thing that people were concerned with.

How a 346-Team NCAA Tournament Could Work

Before we get started, it should be noted that the NCAA already shot down this proposal. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA senior vice president of basketball, assured fans that this was not being taken seriously.

“Every college basketball team’s goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament because everyone loves March Madness,” stated Gavitt. “While all who care about the game are entitled to their opinion, at this time we are not working on any contingency plan that involves expanding the tournament field.”

The NCAA Tournament Bracket

First things first, how in the world do you create a 346-team bracket? The answer is simple: do not reinvent the wheel. A nice, symmetrical template already exists for seeding a set of 16 teams. Keep that format and create 16 different 16-team brackets. That gives us 256 teams, so what about the other 90? The tournament already has an answer for that as well: play-in games!

Instead of four play-ins, we get 89 of them. All that has to be done is expand the snake seeding to create a 17 seed versus a 16 seed, an 18 seed versus a 15 seed, and so on. Seeing a potential 22 seed in a bracket might look ugly, but it gets the job done in terms of having every team included and having a bracket that works. Overall, only one week is added to the tournament. Play-in games can still occur a few days before the first round. Meanwhile, the new and improved Final Four weekend just adds a fourth week into the schedule.

The Regions

Where should the games be played? The answer to this question circles back to the bubble ideas already in discussion. Numerous locations are already submitting proposals to make their site a potential bubble for games. In this scenario, 17 bubbles are needed. Cutting down the amount of travel for teams is the key, especially with respect to COVID-19. Therefore, the 16 regions are all completed at one site, including play-in games. To simplify this process, the regional will be completed at the home court of the one-seed, providing that team a home-court advantage to try and ensure the best team is still reaching the final rounds.

Once all of the regional games are completed, the 16 winners are then moved to the 17th site to complete the remaining games. Indianapolis seems like a perfect fit since it’s where the NCAA headquarters are located. However, any location can be chosen so long as it is a bubble. This setup provides the least amount of travel possible to try and cut down on the potential spread of the virus.

The Selection Process

For this tournament, the selection process has never been easier! There is no debate over which team deserves to be in or left out. The only thing that needs to be decided is how to seed teams. Everyone is familiar with the normal process where 10 people decide the fate of the normal 68-team field. Multiple metrics are available for each individual committee member to make their respective bracket. However, it is obvious that trying to have a debate on 346 teams would most likely cause a headache for all involved. With that in mind, the committee should use the NCAA’s tried and true and official metric in the NET rankings.

Before the arguments begin about how reliable the NET is, understand that fact has already been considered. Keep in mind this would be a one-time deal. For the purposes of simplicity, using the NET to rank the teams 1-346 is easiest. The top 16 teams receive one seeds, the next 16 get two seeds, and so on. The brackets will then be set up to match the overall number one seed against the overall number 16 seed. This type of format still sets up a tournament where the four best teams should be getting the so-called “easiest” path to the Final Four.

The Reality 

There it is, in its most basic format. A 346-team bracket, complete with play-in games, extra rounds, and the 22-seed Cinderella team. While the proposal by the ACC coaches can be appreciated for its sincerity, it just would not make sense. It is easy to sit here and create something like this on paper, but actually organizing everything it would take to get there is a whole separate thing.

The biggest factor that drove the proposal was the idea that the ACC was leaning against playing any non-conference games. That is a debate that still needs to be settled, though recent reports suggest that a start date that is delayed roughly two weeks is in play. In this scenario, non-conference games are still a possibility, though the number played will be down significantly from what fans are used to. Right now, everything needs to be taken one step at a time. Figuring out how teams can safely play must be done before anything else should be considered. Then the NCAA Tournament can be addressed. 346 teams will not happen this year. However, something between 32 and 96 teams seems more likely.

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