ESPN NCAA Tournament expert makes case to expand bracket to 72 teams

ESPN college basketball analyst and original bracketologist Joe Lunardi discusses expanding the NCAA Tournament in this excerpt from the upcoming book “Bracketology: March Madness, College Basketball, and the Creation of a National Obsession,” available Tuesday

There are some danger zones in the sport we love; there is clearly a competitive imbalance. It may be inevitable, and it could one day result in future haves and have-nots divisions. For the moment, there is only one Division I. I don’t think it’s good for the game when certain schools are able to buy themselves a head start. What do I mean by that? At one extreme of Division I, there are schools starting the season 10–0 because they are All-American check-writers. Too many schools start 0–10 because they can only survive by cashing those checks. We now have pretty good ways to measure 10–0 versus 0–10, but the casual observer only sees where the zero is. I can’t think of another sport with such an overt imbalance. There is a caste system before the ball goes up. It’s a black eye for the game and speaks to other money problems in the sport.

College basketball players have been getting paid under the table for as long as there have been tables. Talent in any endeavor is going to be rewarded at some level commensurate with interest in that endeavor. If I could do card tricks better than anyone else in the world and walked around a casino with a sign proving that, people would probably throw poker chips at me to show them some card tricks. That’s just the way it is. The purity and alleged amateurism of college sports are laudable but not realistic. If we want a sport, in which television pays billions of dollars to air the best games, there is going to be a secret economy. If we went back to the peach basket and playing only for the joy of the game, it might be wonderful, but there would be far fewer eyeballs. Just like the Olympics, once millions were interested in the 100 meters, the participants wanted a piece of the action.

Zion Williamson, flanked by RJ Barrett (left) and Marques Bolden, after his shoe broke apart while playing North Carolina on Feb. 20, 2019.
Zion Williamson, flanked by RJ Barrett (left) and Marques Bolden, after his shoe broke apart while playing North Carolina on Feb. 20, 2019.
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What is a tolerable level of commercialism that doesn’t sully the entire enterprise? Is it okay if [Zion] Williamson’s family got $100,000 to watch him blow out a sneaker at Duke? Today you can stay and play for as little as one year of college basketball. In college baseball once you go to your first class, you’ve got to stay three years. Maybe the issue isn’t compensation. Should those players, who are truly worth six or seven figures, be in college at all? John McEnroe and Tiger Woods left Stanford early, and no one was worse for it — least of all them! Maybe it was actually more pure when top recruits could go straight to the NBA. We’re going to end up back there in some way very soon.

The game is also good enough to overcome its inherent conflicts, but the NCAA’s approach of ignoring problems and hoping they go away isn’t helpful. I’ll stay in my lane and speak only about the current postseason structure. We need to be proactive in addressing the manipulation of the NCAA Tournament by the power conferences before they take over the entire field.

It’s time to consider a modest — very modest — expansion of the tournament. When the 64-team field came into being in 1985, Division I comprised 282 schools. Between the NCAA Tournament (64 teams) and the NIT (32 teams), the 96-team postseason included just over one-third of the Division I membership. For better or worse, we’ve added 75 Division I schools since then — but only four NCAA bids — dropping meaningful postseason participation to 28 percent of all teams. I’m not suggesting anything like major college football, where half of all Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams go to bowl games, just an overdue tweak of the math.

My suggestion would be a 72-team NCAA Tournament. Two additional doubleheaders could easily be played on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights of the existing First Four. If modernizing while retaining competitive balance is the agreed-upon objective, an equal number of major and mid-major teams would be added. Form subgroups of the Selection Committee to pick the additional teams by category and play them off against one another. By Thursday noon a 64-team field would remain, and all would be right with the world. In my modeling there is a legitimate case for at least four additional teams, especially if more regular-season champions are included. But that’s the cap. The we-almost-went-to-96-teams negotiations of 2010 proved as much.

One year on Selection Sunday, I came off the set after being on the air with Chris Fowler, Jay Bilas, and Digger Phelps. We had concluded the seemingly annual bubble debate over a high-major team and a mid-major. That year the debate was between Notre Dame and Siena. Digger barked as only he can, “If Notre Dame played in Siena’s league, they would never lose.”

I countered, “They would absolutely lose” because the Irish would have to play nine true road games, which happened to be nine more than they had played at any point of their non-conference season.

When I got back to the Green Room, who else but Bob Knight was waiting to go on for the next segment. I knew Coach Knight only in passing. So it was more than a little intimidating when he moved toward me with apparent purpose. He got right in my face and said, “Lunardi, why do you take that bullshit from those guys? Aren’t you the one who’s right all the time?” I answered, “Coach, that’s very kind of you, but we really don’t know who’s better — Notre Dame or Siena — because they never play. And even if they did, it would never be on a neutral court.”

Knight said, “I’m going to go in there and tell them that if we doubled the field to 128 teams, we’d stop all these stupid arguments. Would I be a jackass if I said that?” It was a little bit like when a woman asks her husband, “Does this dress make me look fat?” Somehow I didn’t say what I was thinking.

I said, “Coach, I appreciate you asking, but let’s remember that between us we have 902 coaching wins. And you have all of them.” I, though, couldn’t help but add: “It’s a colossally bad idea. If I showed you team No. 127 or No. 128 right now, you’d throw a fit and say they have no business playing for a national championship.”

“Thanks for setting me straight,” Knight replied. “I don’t want to look like an idiot out there.” That’s a true story. Of course, what’s also true is that if the field was ever expanded to anything close to 128 teams, there would be an argument over who was No. 129.

There can’t be many people observing the cut line like I do on a daily basis. If you’re open-minded enough to look at the next tier of conferences — the Missouri Valley, the West Coast Conference, the Mid-American, or Conference USA — there are more teams than you think who are good enough to win in the NCAA Tournament. Heck, I want to do this long enough to see an at-large team from the Ivy League in the field. I don’t think the competitive value and the integrity of the big dance would be hurt by doubling the First Four and going to 72 teams, especially if games outside the main bracket were limited to at-large teams only.

Should the NCAA expand the tournament to 72 teams, Joe Lunardi thinks the Palestra in Philadelphia would be a good second location for play-in games along with Dayton, Ohio.
Should the NCAA expand the tournament to 72 teams, Joe Lunardi thinks the Palestra in Philadelphia would be a good second location for play-in games along with Dayton, Ohio.

No automatic qualifiers regardless of seed should have to play in to get to the field of 64. If you can earn an automatic bid — the key word being earn — you should be in the main bracket. The extended First Four should be comprised strictly of at-large selections. The best part of my tweaking would be the Tuesday/Wednesday drama. Removing AQs from the opening round would send only bubble teams to Dayton, Ohio, and whatever second site is selected. (I vote for the Palestra, by the way, which remains the greatest venue in the history of the sport.) All 16 teams from our bubble — Last Four Byes, Last Four In, First Four Out, Next Four Out — would be on the court where they belong to play for the final eight at-large spots in the main bracket.

This excerpt of “Bracketology: March Madness, College Basketball, and the Creation of a National Obsession” by Joe Lunardi is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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