80 Teams Could Be Just Right

Recent discussion of the NCAA Tournament expanding to 96 teams is a little much, but expansion to a small degree does make some sense. Every year, debates are waged pitting the historic power barely getting by with a record just over .500 against a 20-win team from a so-called "mid-major" conference.

The recent addition of a "play-in" game when the field expanded to 65 teams offers a little insight into why 80 teams might be a great fit. Instead of playing one "play-in" game, there would be 16 of them.

First of all, the top 48 teams would be seeded in four brackets. The best part is, the 31 conference champions must be seeded in that 48. That leaves 17 spots, which would basically be the rest of the teams ranked in the Top 25 polls. Why seed a team 12th when it's traditionally seeded 16th? That team won its conference so if any team deserves a first round bye, it's that team. For years, these teams have been seed 15th and 16th, only to be hammered by a top 10 team. Now they get their chance against a 5- or 6-seed and that's enough to give them hope in that first round.

What this also sets up is a chance for the bubble teams to prove it on the court. Those teams which would have been the last 16 teams in the tournament now have to play what would have been the first 16 teams left out of the tournament. Those 17-win teams with .500 records in one of the big six conferences now get to play the 22-win "mid major" teams for the right to make it to the round of 64.

Once this new first round is complete, the teams that win would now be matched up with the 1-4 seeds in each bracket. So a team, which in the past might have been an 8- or 9-seed (and had to play the #1 seed in the round of 32) now gets that match-up in the round of 64. Doesn't seem fair? These teams play in big conferences so it shouldn't be a big deal for them to play a top seed early.

Almost everyone loves the underdogs – the Cinderella teams like George Mason – who make it a lot deeper in the tournament than anyone expected. Giving the champions of the smaller conferences seeds 8-12 gives them a great chance to win a game in the tournament and a decent chance of making it to the sweet sixteen. The bottom line is that the best teams will rise to the top, and winning a conference championship should mean something.

Let's take a quick look at what an 80-team field would look like. The Big East would get 8 teams of its 16 in the tournament. Seven teams each from the Big 12 and the ACC, and 6 teams would get in from the Big 10. Five teams would come from both the SEC and the Atlantic 10. The Pac-10, the Mountain West, and Conference USA would get four teams each. The Missouri Valley Conference would get three teams in this year. The WAC, the Colonial, the Horizon, the Metro, and the West Coast Conferences would each get two teams. If the other 15 leagues only got their conference champs in, there would still be two open spots for a sixth SEC team or Atlantic 10 team or a third team from the WAC or Colonial Conferences.

In short, every team with the slightest argument for the field of 65 would get into the field of 80. Of course, in the future there'd be teams saying they are the 80th best team and not someone else. Having roughly a fourth of the country's teams in a tournament is a lot more reasonable than seeing 16 out of 30 NBA teams in its playoffs or having more than half of the 119 FBS football teams participating in bowl games.

Expanding the field by 50% seems like too much at this time. There are not 32 teams left out each year that belong in, but there are certainly 16 that have a legitimate argument. Let the debate continue…

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