Open the NCAA Tournament to all comers

A 324-team field would add excitement and give hope to underdogs. Almost as good, it'd get rid of the dumb conference championships.

Topics: Basketball,

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is one of our great sporting events. It therefore makes sense that I want to change it completely. I just can’t seem to look at basketball without wanting to change the rules. I’ve been working on the problem of games devolving into timeout-filled free-throw-shooting contests for years now. That my elegant solution, outlawing timeouts and free throws, has gone unheeded by the basketball mullahs I can attribute only to blatant cronyism.

Here’s how to make the 65-team Tournament better: Let everyone in. Make it a 324-team Tournament. If it’s exciting now to have a team with a mediocre record pull off a few upsets and go on a run, think how exciting it would be if a team with a downright lousy record did it. With every single Division I team eligible for the national championship, what a story it would make if, say, Lipscomb University (6-21) got red hot and barged into the Sweet 16. Stranger things have happened.

Well, stranger things haven’t happened, actually, but gosh, what a thrill it would be. They’d make a movie about the Bisons, with Josh Hartnett playing freshman leading scorer Jeff Dancy. (I know what you’re thinking: Dancy’s black. But this is Hollywood. Hartnett’s performance would be a characterization, see, not an impersonation. Think Brian Dennehy as Bob Knight.)

If an everybody-in-the-pool Tournament were to accomplish nothing other than making conference tournaments a thing of the past, it would be an unqualified success. “Best week in college basketball,” announcer Barry Tompkins gushed last week as ESPN 2′s cameras surveyed a nearly empty Staples Center during a Pac-10 tournament game.

There are exceptions, but for the most part the top teams dog their way through the conference tournaments. If you’re in a major or even a mid-major conference and you’ve had a good season, why play hard in the conference tournament? Bragging rights? Give me a break. The best strategy is to lose in the first round without looking like you’re trying to lose, then rest up for the real thing the following week. Playing three or four games in as many days is not the best way, at the end of a long year, to prepare yourself for the grueling NCAA Tournament.

So the bigger conference tournaments become an exercise in finding out which mediocre team will get hot and win the automatic berth, thus preventing some other team — Butler (25-5) is this year’s poster child — from getting a deserved at-large bid. In the smaller conferences, the question becomes whether a team that played well for the entire regular season will get screwed out of its chance to play in the Tournament because some other team got hot for one weekend.

Even the NCAA realizes that its conference tournaments are mostly bogus. The typing classes are currently whining about the Tournament selection committee disregarding conference tournament outcomes in seeding the brackets. Oklahoma pounded Kansas in the Big 12 final Sunday, for example, and while Kansas still got a No. 1 seeding in the Midwest, Oklahoma is No. 2 in the West, behind Cincinnati. The latter would have been a bad call regardless of Sunday’s outcome — Oklahoma’s beaten Maryland and Connecticut this year, too, while Cincinnati, champion of the mostly mediocre Conference USA, notched one quality nonconference win, over Mississippi State — but the committee is right in giving short shrift to the conference tourneys. Because the games aren’t of equal importance to all of the participants, they can’t be used to accurately gauge the relative strength of the teams playing. With real money on the table, Kansas doesn’t get smoked by Oklahoma.

So. You’re wondering how it works. The answer is I don’t know. Never let it be said that I don’t have answers.

Until someone listens to me about the free throws and the timeouts, I’m not going to waste perfectly good taco-eating time working out the details, but my basic plan would be to have the regular season still mean something. So the 64 teams that now make the Tournament (65 are chosen, but two of them stage a “play-in” game for the 64th spot) would get a bye for three rounds. The pastime of arguing about which bubble teams should or shouldn’t be in the top 64 could continue.

My understanding is that there are 324 Division I teams. So we’d have eight teams play a first round to get down to 320 teams. The 256 who don’t have a bye would then play two more rounds to get themselves down to 64, which would be matched with the 64 “Tournament” teams in a sort of giant play-in round, an expansion, by 63 teams, of the current play-in game. All of this would happen during the week that’s now blown on conference tourneys.

So the top 64 teams would have to win seven Tournament games, not six, to win the championship. But the first game would be against someone no better than 65th in the nation, and they wouldn’t have to play any conference tournament games. This system would give lesser teams a chance to win a couple of meaningful games and would keep interest up at every school. Our boys from Lipscomb wouldn’t have to play a top-64 team until after they’d won two or three times.

Where these games would be played, how the travel would be arranged, all that stuff: not my department. And for you fans of the NIT, it still happens, with the best of the rest once the NCAA field is down to 64 teams. And there would be better teams in the NIT, because at least a few in the top 64 would be bounced in that play-in round.

This idea is so brilliant, it’s a tragedy it’ll never happen. Don’t you agree?

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Meanwhile, in the real world

In case you care what I think: Kansas over Duke in the final. Just because. A hunch.

In the first round, the upsets I’m picking are UNC-Charlotte over Notre Dame, Utah over Indiana and Kent State over Oklahoma State in the South; Hawaii over Xavier in the West; Valparaiso over Kentucky (my biggest upset pick, a 13 over a 4) and Southern Illinois over Texas Tech in the East; Western Kentucky over Stanford and Pepperdine over Wake Forest in the Midwest. Otherwise I’m picking the favorites and, as always, rooting for the teams in the road jerseys, as I have no money at stake, only pride, of which I have none, so I can pull for the underdogs with impunity.

My Sweet 16: Duke, USC, California and Alabama in the South; Cincinnati, Miami, Arizona and Oklahoma in the West; Maryland, Marquette, Georgia and Connecticut in the East; Kansas, Florida, Texas and Oregon in the Midwest.

Brave me picks Duke to beat Alabama to get into the Final Four. I’m also picking Arizona over Cincinnati because I just don’t believe in the Bearcats, and Arizona’s always dangerous this time of year. UConn beats Maryland, loath as I am to pick a Big East team, since they’re usually overrated these days — someone explain to me how Boston College is a tournament team — but the Huskies are hot, and I just don’t believe in the Terrapins. And Kansas beats Oregon.

Next year, though, it’s Lipscomb U. all the way. Josh Hartnett: Call your agent.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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