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Five suggestions about NCAA Tournament expansion …

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UPDATE (April 23):   The NCAA Selection Committee has recommended that the Men’s Basketball Tournament expand to 68 teams – instead of the much anticipated 96.  Great news.  The recommendation still must be approved, however.  Also, we don’t yet know exactly how the three-team addition will work.  Will we simply have three more play-in games for 16-17 seeds? … or will we see bubble teams be paired against each other for a 12-seed?  Word from the NCAA is that such an announcement will arrive this summer.  Either way, the suggestions below would still benefit the overall selection and seeding process.

Perhaps as early as next season, the NCAA Tournament may (will) expand to 96 teams (NCAA has since recommended 68).  There are many reasons to dislike the decision.  Most have been discussed at length, so I won’t rewind the tape – excuse me, DVR.   What we have now (or will) is simply a combination of the NIT and NCAA.  Nothing more; one team less.  There were 32 teams in the NIT this spring; 65 in the NCAA.   

With 31 automatic bids, a whopping 65 “at-large” could be determined by the Selection Committee.  Here are five thoughts (suggestions) about how to improve the updated selection and seeding process ….

1. Make the conference season meaningful:  Mandate that the regular-season champion earn the league’s automatic bid.  Otherwise, what’s the point of playing a 16-18 game conference schedule?  The mandate applies to every eligible conference, not just BCS leagues.  The next best move would be to dissolve conference tournaments.  Since that won’t happen, however, we have to keep the league tournaments relevant.  The winner has to receive an automatic bid;  in essence, the current format.  Teams not selected for the NCAA now earn an NIT bid if they win the regular-season title and fail in their post-season tourney.  Potentially, this would use another 31 (or 62 total) bids – leaving us with 34 at-large options, the same amount we currently have.

2. Establish minimum standards for participation:  We don’t need 10 teams from the Big 10 or 13 from the Big East or 12 from the ACC competing in the NCAA tournament.  Require minimum performance standards related to overall and conference record performance.  How about a .500 record in league play? (with possible exceptions made for injuries).  If we learned anything this past March Madness, it’s that non-BCS teams and mid-majors can compete in a one-and-done format.  Yes, the tournament will be better with more teams like … New Mexico State, Wichita State, San Diego State, Siena, St. Mary’s, etc.

3. Non-conference Strength of Schedule should matter (even more):  Great non-conference matchups are what we crave in November and December.  Reward teams that schedule better.  This would encourage BSC teams in particular to schedule more home-and-homes with mid-majors.  Losing a game at Butler or Wichita State shouldn’t be considered a “bad” loss.  What we have now is a bunch of teams with inflated records – making it more difficult for the NCAA to “peel the onion” so to speak.    Any team with a non-conference SOS ranked in the bottom third of the NCAA shouldn’t be eligible for an at-large bid.

4. At-large selections should be performance driven:  There is sometimes a difference between the “best” team and the “most deserving” team on Selection Sunday.  While arguments about whether North Carolina is better than St. Mary’s (example only) based on talent or the “eye test” are fun, teams should be selected on how they actually performed.   Establish guidelines for Selection Committee members to use.   Keep the voting process, just make it less subjective and more objective.

5. Allow the Selection Committee more time for seeding and bracketing:  Not ideal for CBS (or whomever ends up with broadcasting rights), but require all conference play (tourney or otherwise) to end Saturday night – not Selection Sunday.  As it stands, the Selection Committee often has little time to finalize seeding and bracketing.  While selection is most important, seeding and bracketing are important, too.  Help keep as many teams close to home as possible.  Early-round tourney sites are empty enough as it is.

The premise of these suggestions are valid regardless of expansion.  Here’s to hoping we can revisit a number that’s less than 96.  But we have to deal with reality.  Once the deadline for entry into the NBA Draft is over, I’ll take another early look at the 2011 tournament.   How that looks, we don’t yet know.

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