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Do not change the NCAA Tournament

Greg Sankey reportedly wants to get rid of automatic bids and that would be no fun

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Richmond vs Iowa Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Listen: if there is a fanbase who should want to eliminate the auto bid teams from the NCAA Basketball Tournament, it is the Iowa Hawkeyes. The two hottest iterations of Iowa Hoops over the last 20 years lost in the first round. Those individual results were absolutely no fun. I’m not going to spin it otherwise.

But it is asinine of SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to float the possibility of getting rid of teams like your Richmonds & Northwestern States (& St. Peterses, who just so happened beat Sankey’s beloved Kentucky Wildcats in the first round this past year) because it keeps March Madness from being March Madness. Jeff Goodman had the scoop on this possibility during his Field of 68 Podcast which made the rounds earlier this week:

As Goodman alluded with “the big boys,” it wouldn’t be Sankey, alone, who wants to do away with single-bid leagues. Sankey is just saying the quiet part out loud: in the changing landscape of college athletics, a power vacuum is about to exist where the NCAA stood. It already exists within college football, where no NCAA championship exists for the sport at its highest level so what is to say the same couldn’t exist for basketball?

In practice, I have a hard time squaring what a future SEC (and presumably Big Ten)-centric tournament would look like. I mean, the math on it is simple, if the two conferences are going to create their own 32-team tournament. Welcome back a relevant NIT! But can you credibly call the winner of that tournament a national champion? Especially when the last times a school from either of those conferences was a decade ago?

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

The ACC has eight champions this millennium (counting Maryland’s). Big East? Seven. Big 12? Three, but the last two.

Tell me: if you are a non-SEC or Big Ten conference, isn’t it to your benefit to maintain the current structure absent those two? The credibility of the tournament would take a hit, but still carry much more weight than a hypothetical new tournament if the remaining four power conferences kept every other conference on the ship together to maintain the current setup. Maybe you see the Pac-12 join the SEC & Big Ten - their last Champion was 1997! - but a tournament encompassing the remaining 29 conferences holds more credibility.

Another point: eliminating auto bids removes a portion of what makes March great every year. Conference tournaments have SO MUCH hanging in the balance for the 22 conferences who send only one team to the tournament. Though perhaps we’d see more multi-bid leagues to fill the void left by any conferences creating their own tournament.

Imagining the Sankey scuttlebutt

The Sankey hearsay is just that so it’s tough to know exactly what his ideal state is. But I have a hard time envisioning a full-throated removal of automatic bids in a 64-68 team tournament. To make it simple, say the top 16 conference champions receive an auto bid with the remaining 48 being split amongst the top 6 conferences - SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, & Big East.

The only team who won who’d get frozen out in the hypothetical would be St. Peter’s. But we’d be replacing those 16 teams with more Michigans & Indianas. Teams with Charmin soft resumes and not all that deserving of a bid into the most exciting American tournament.

Like, can you imagine extending the bubble to teams like the Big Ten’s troika of 7-13 teams? Maryland, Northwestern, & Penn State. None of them had an overall winning record but they’d have some semblance of a case to be in the tournament as auto-bids are reduced.

It could also mean reducing the entrants from multi-bid, non-exclusive conferences. Though the Mountain West went 0-4, the non-champions may have been left behind as power conferences look to build out their presence in the tournament.

Now, the case for it (lord help me) is that we’d be less likely to leave teams out with the capability of winning first round games. KenPom had eight Power 6 conference teams ahead of the tournament within the top 64 who didn’t make the tournament. But again, do we really want to live in a world where 17-15 St. John’s has a case to make the NCAA Tournament?

A humble supplement

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

One headwind which college basketball currently faces is that the schedule simply isn’t to its benefit. There is really only two timeframes where the sport can break through - “Feast Week” with Thanksgiving tournaments and post-Super Bowl. So my idea would likely cannibalize Feast Week to create an elite version of pre-conference tournaments with its own championship that starts that post-Super Bowl timeframe off with a bang.

Consider a Champions League-style tournament which has 16 high-performing teams from the prior year. To put the thumb on the scales of power conferences, those schools would make up at least 12 of the 16 slots. However the conference wants to allocate the spots, they can, but for my idea let’s grant them to the regular season and tournament champions. I’d make sure the previous season’s national champion was involved if they didn’t meet the previous criteria. Then we’ll add the 3 or 4 best teams (KenPom for this example) outside of that. So it’d look like:

  1. Gonzaga (at large)
  2. Houston (at large)
  3. Kansas (National Champion / Big 12 co-champion / tournament champion)
  4. Baylor (Big 12 co-champion)
  5. Arizona (Pac-12 champion / tournament champion)
  6. Kentucky (at large)
  7. Texas Tech (at large)
  8. Duke (ACC Champion)
  9. Tennessee (SEC tournament champion)
  10. Villanova (Big East tournament champion)
  11. UCLA (Pac-12 runner up)
  12. Auburn (SEC champion)
  13. Virginia Tech (ACC tournament champion; #19 KenPom)
  14. Illinois (Big 10 co-champion; #20 KenPom)
  15. Providence (Big East champion; #32 KenPom)
  16. Wisconsin (Big 10 champion; #37 KenPom)

Big man of me to put Illinois & Wisconsin in there instead of Iowa. But if you want to slide Iowa in there, and I wouldn’t blame you, they’d have been seeded 13th.

Anyways, we turn these 16 teams into four 4-team round robin tournaments hosted by the top 4 seeds the week of Thanksgiving. I make some slight adjustments to limit conference overlap:

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

(If Iowa’s in here instead of Wisconsin, they’d take VT’s spot; VT, Providence’s spot; Providence, Wisconsin’s spot)

The pod which sticks out is absolutely Kansas hosting Kentucky & UCLA. Three blue bloods in a historic venue.

The winner of each pod would advance to a neutral site “Final 4” the weekend after the Super Bowl and crowned champions of this new-found tournament (Friday/Sunday). They could also send the winners of the pods + runners up to create an 8 team bracket with games held over 5 days - Wednesday/Friday/Sunday.

What this does, though, is generate up to 24 high profile non-conference games early in the season plus reset a narratives in February ahead of the most rollicking time in sports.

My opinion that March Madness should not be touched is all across the Internet. But I do understand Sankey’s point of view but believe the right way to approach it would be a supplemental tournament instead of an overhaul of the existing format.

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