NCAA Basketball: Don't Change March Madness

NCAA Basketball: Don’t Change March Madness

Listen up: If there’s one fan base that should want to knock out autobidding teams from the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s the Iowa Hawkeyes. The two hottest iterations of Iowa Hoops in the past 20 years have lost in the first round. These individual results were absolutely no fun. Otherwise I won’t shoot it.

But it’s stupid of SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to offer the possibility of getting rid of teams like your Richmond and Northwestern states (and St. Peterses, who just beat the beloved Sankey’s Kentucky Wildcats in the first round last year) because it keeps March Madness from being March Madness. Jeff Goodman got the inside scoop on this possibility during his Field of 68 podcast which made the rounds earlier this week:

As Goodman alluded to with “the big boys,” it wouldn’t be Sankey alone who wants to get rid of single-candidate leagues. Sankey just says the quiet part out loud: In the changing landscape of college athletics, a power vacuum is about to exist where the NCAA stood. This already exists in college football, where no NCAA championship exists for the sport at its highest level, so how can we say the same thing couldn’t exist for basketball?

In practice, I have a hard time imagining what a future SEC-centric (and presumably Big Ten) tournament would look like. I mean, the math is simple, if the two conferences are going to create their own 32-team tournament. Welcome back a Relevant TIN! But can you credibly qualify the winner of this tournament as a national champion? Especially when the last time a school at either of these conferences was ten years ago?

  • 2012 – Kentucky
  • 2006 & 2007 – Florida
  • 2000 – Michigan State

The ACC has eight champions this millennium (including Maryland). Great East? Sept. Big 12? Three, but the last two.

Tell me: If you’re a non-SEC or Big Ten conference, isn’t it in your best interest to maintain the current structure in the absence of those two? The credibility of the tournament would take a hit, but would still carry much more weight than a hypothetical new tournament if the four remaining power conferences held together all the other conferences on the ship to maintain the current setup. Perhaps you see the Pac-12 joining the SEC and the Big Ten – their last champion was in 1997! — but a tournament encompassing the remaining 29 conferences holds more credibility.

Another point: eliminating autobidding removes some of what makes March great every year. Conference tournaments have SO much at stake for the 22 conferences that only send one team to the tournament. Although we might see more multi-candidate leagues to fill the void left by conferences creating their own tournament.

Sankey’s hearsay is just that, so it’s hard to know exactly what his ideal state is. But I find it hard to imagine a total elimination of automatic bidding in a 64-68 team tournament. For simplicity, let’s assume the top 16 conference champions receive an automatic bid, with the remaining 48 split among the top 6 conferences – SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big East.

The only team that won and would be frozen in the hypothetical would be St. Peter’s. But we would replace those 16 teams with more Michigans & Indianas. Teams with Charmin’s sweet resumes and not all of which deserve a bid for America’s most exciting tournament.

For example, can you imagine expanding the bubble to teams like the Big Ten troika of 7-13 teams? Maryland, Northwest and Penn State. None of them had an overall winning record, but they would have some semblance of a case to be in the tournament as the auto-bidding is reduced.

It could also mean reducing the number of participants in multi-offer and non-exclusive conferences. Although Mountain West went 0-4, the non-champions may have been left behind as the power conferences look to bolster their presence in the tournament.

Now the case for it’s (lord, help me) we’d be less likely to leave teams with the ability to win games in the first round. KenPom had eight pre-tournament Power 6 conference teams in the top 64 that did not make the tournament. But then again, do we really want to live in a world where 17-15 St. John’s has a case to make the NCAA tournament?

Listen, I get the desire to have an “elite” version of March Madness. But instead of putting a fly in the ointment of the NCAA Tournament, Sankey should try to develop something that can exist alongside him.

A headwind that college basketball is currently facing is that the schedule just isn’t to its advantage. There are really only two periods in which the sport can break through – the “party week” with the Thanksgiving tournaments and the post-Super Bowl. So my idea would probably be to cannibalize party week to create an elite version of pre-conference tournaments with its own championship that starts this post-Super Bowl period with a bang.

Consider a Champions League style tournament that features 16 high performing teams from the previous year. To put the thumb on the balance of power conferences, these schools would represent at least 12 of the 16 locations. However, the conference wants to award the spots, they can, but for my idea, let’s award them to the regular season and tournament champions. I would make sure that the national champion of the previous season is involved if he did not meet the previous criteria. Then we’ll add the top 3 or 4 teams (KenPom for this example) out of that. So it would look like:

  1. Gonzaga (in the broad sense)
  2. Houston (at large)
  3. Kansas (National Champion / Co-Big 12 Champion / Tournament Champion)
  4. Baylor (co-champion of the Big 12)
  5. Arizona (Pac-12 Champion/Tournament Champion)
  6. Kentucky (at large)
  7. Texas Tech (broadly defined)

  8. Duke (ACC Champion)
  9. Tennessee (SEC Tournament Champion)
  10. Villanova (Big East Tournament Champion)

  11. UCLA (Pac-12 finalist)

  12. Auburn (SEC champ)
  13. Virginia Tech (ACC Tournament Champion; #19 KenPom)

  14. Illinois (Co-Big 10 Champion; #20 KenPom)
  15. Providence (Great East champion; #32 KenPom)
  16. Wisconsin (Big 10 champ; #37 KenPom)

Great man of me for putting Illinois and Wisconsin in there instead of Iowa. But if you want to drag Iowa in there, and I wouldn’t blame you, they would have been ranked 13th.

Either way, we’re turning those 16 teams into four 4-team round-robin tournaments hosted by the top 4 seeds on Thanksgiving week. I’m making some slight adjustments to limit conference overlap:

  • Gonzaga Pod: Duke, Tennessee, Wisconsin
  • Houston Module: Texas Tech, Villanova, Illinois
  • Kansas Group: Kentucky, UCLA, Providence
  • Pod Baylor: Arizona, Auburn, Virginia Tech

(If Iowa is here instead of Wisconsin, they would take VT’s place; VT, Providence’s place; Providence, Wisconsin’s place)

The pod that stands out is absolutely Kansas hosting Kentucky and UCLA. Three blue bloods in a historic place.

The winner of each pod would qualify for a “Final 4” neutral site the weekend after the Super Bowl and crowned champion of that rediscovered tournament (Friday/Sunday). They could also send pod winners + runners-up to create an 8-team pool with matches taking place over 5 days – Wednesday/Friday/Sunday.

However, that generates up to 24 high-profile non-conference games at the start of the season and resets the stories in February before the sport’s most exciting time.

My opinion that March Madness should not be touched is all over the internet. But I understand Sankey’s point, but I think the right way to approach it would be an additional tournament instead of an overhaul of the existing format.

The NCAA Tournament is about the only thing this organization does right. Let’s keep it that way.

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