Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

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