The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 96-team bracket doesn’t look so pretty the day after Selection Sunday

(Illustration by Artur Galocha/The Washington Post)
5 min

Have you noticed that the most common time for NCAA tournament expansion discussions is when just about no one is thinking about the NCAA tournament?

It happened in October, when chatter about moving from 68 teams to 96 revved up alongside conference media days. It’s an even easier subject to broach in the summer, when the annual roster carousel isn’t even complete.

Every now and then, it pops up when people are paying attention — such as in 2010, when plans were afoot to move to 96 teams. It was not a universally popular move, and there was a sense of resignation that it would happen.

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Instead, the NCAA went from 65 to 68 the next year, adding three more midweek games in Dayton, Ohio. Most college basketball aficionados viewed it as a more-than-tolerable compromise.

The perfect time to give expansion a full assessment is today. Right now. Just as everyone is sitting down to fill out their brackets, why not imagine what things might look like in a 96-team tournament world?

First of all, it’s going to be a lot harder to fit a bracket on a sheet of paper. Then again, maybe that doesn’t matter as much in a digital world.

Beyond those logistics, who exactly would be populating these extra 28 spots? For starters, Oklahoma State, Rutgers, North Carolina and Clemson wouldn’t be the first four teams excluded. They would be safely inside the field, with a whopping two dozen spaces to spare.

Also, it’s safe to assume North Carolina would not be packing up for the season if it happened to be the No. 13 seed in a 24-team regional. Nope, regardless of how much the Tar Heels underperformed this season, they would be playing on if their option was an NCAA trip and not the NIT bid they declined.

So, too, would Dayton, which cited “health concerns for our overall roster” in a statement Sunday announcing it would pass on an NIT berth. Throw an NCAA spot into the mix, and the Flyers would surely play on.

(As a quick aside, it’s interesting that multiple teams turned down the NIT, if only because that hasn’t happened much since the NCAA purchased the event. The implied reasoning was “Why risk poking the NCAA in the eye?” Perhaps that isn’t cause for pause anymore.)

With those five teams in the field, there’s another 23 to find. Go ahead and toss everybody else from the top four lines of the NIT field in. That includes Oregon (an NIT 1 seed); New Mexico, North Texas, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin (2 seeds); Colorado, Liberty, Michigan and Sam Houston (3 seeds); and Cincinnati, Florida, UAB and Washington State (4 seeds). Only another 10 to go.

Let’s sift through the rest of the NIT field for some more at-large picks. They include Central Florida, Santa Clara, Seton Hall, Villanova and Virginia Tech. Go ahead and tack on three top-75 NET teams that won regular season conference titles: Bradley, Utah Valley and Yale.

And there’s still two spots to go in this rough exercise. Power conference programs such as Nebraska, Utah and Wake Forest would be in the conversation. So would regular season conference champions such as Hofstra, Southern Mississippi and Toledo.

The point of gaming this out isn’t to pick on teams such as Bradley, Hofstra and Southern Miss, because they all enjoyed fine seasons and should be celebrated. Expanding the field and having a bunch of them get in would be a bit charming, but the incentives of expanding are not to permit an extra team from the Ivy League or the Mid-American Conference to get a shot.

Instead, the goal would be to ensure pretty much every brand-name team with a winning record got a chance to participate in the additional television inventory.

That would be 28 more games to sell ads for, presumably on weekdays. Imagine a round of 96 on Wednesday and Thursday, the round of 64 on Friday and Saturday and the round of 32 on Sunday and Monday — a wild six-day sprint with truTV perhaps getting a year’s worth of viewership jammed into a week.

The NCAA would benefit because it would get more money from its television partners in its next contract. Its television partners would be happy that they would have even more insurance that North Carolina or Michigan or Louisville (Okay, not this year’s Louisville, thank heavens) would be part of the annual event.

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But how much excitement and anticipation would Selection Sunday have carried if the cut line fell between 17-15 Utah and 16-16 Nebraska? And would a round of 96 look that much different from the early rounds of last week’s conference tournaments, which generally didn’t move the needle much?

With all of it fresh in mind — the basketball that was ignored last week, the mediocrity of some of the teams that would cruise into the field when they were fringe options at best in a 68-team tournament, the omnipresent possibility that bigger really isn’t better — this moment is the time to think hard about the impact an expanded bracket would have.

You know, beyond the additional money that could be made in the short term.