ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi shared a bold plan Thursday morning when he proposed the NCAA Tournament expand to 72 teams.
Before you poo-poo the idea, give it a read. His reasoning is strong and his explanation on how it can work is feasible.
And it got me thinking...what is the ideal number for NCAA Tournament teams?
The easy answer is 64, because that’s the perfect bracket. Every team needs to play six games to win. It’s clean. It’s easy.
It’s also outdated. The expansion to 64 teams came in 1985, during an era where there were far fewer Division I schools competing. In fact, there are 69 more schools in Division I today than there were in 1985. With so much more competition, it would be far more difficult now to qualify as an at-large in a 64-team tournament than it was back then.
So no, we are not going back.
After careful consideration and some quick math, I’ve determined the NCAA Tournament should consist of 69 teams.
When the field last expanded from 64 to 68 teams in 2011, there were 345 Division I schools in the 31 conferences that were awarded an automatic bid (the Great West champion did not get one). That left 37 available at-large bids for 314 teams — so about 11.8 percent of at-large-eligible teams reached the tournament.
Just six years later, the landscape of college basketball has changed. The Big East split to form the American Athletic Conference, taking another automatic bid with it. The number of at-large bids shrunk by one. At the same time, six more schools have entered the Division I ranks, and starting next season, they will all be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
So even if you ignore the growing gap between the haves (Power 5/Big East) and have nots (everyone else) of college basketball, it has become more difficult for the little guys to make the NCAA Tournament. Simply by #math, there’s more competition.
You can make a reasonable argument that the math should make it easier for mid-majors to make it in order to compensate for that. But let’s not get too radical just yet. We can revisit in a few years if necessary. Cal Baptist and North Alabama are about to transition to Division I, but Savannah State is about to leave. I would not be surprised if more smaller schools followed, concluding that the cost of big-time athletics far outweighs the potential for reward.
So let’s keep that same 2011 ratio for now and agree to never shrink the field and only expand as necessary. 11.8 percent. One at-large bid for every (approximately) 8.4 teams.
351 current teams. 32 automatic bids. 319 at-large-eligible teams. 11.8 percent is 37.6. Assume there will be a couple teams not eligible due to APR sanctions. Round down. 69.
There should be 69 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Hand out byes however you want.