In my NCAA Tournament-viewing life, I’ve seen the bracket expand from 48 teams to 64 (with a couple choppy play-in iterations thrown in between), where it remained for many years until someone on the tournament organizing committee decided to create another play-in game that put the two lowest-rated automatic qualifiers against each other for the right to play the overall #1 seed, thereby expanding the field to 65 (see here for the reason for expansion to 65). The NCAA Tournament expansion era was set in motion.
Last year the tournament expanded from the single play-in game to four (making the field a total of 68 teams), with the four final “at-large” selections to the field (teams not receiving automatic bids for winning their conference) playing a game each and the four lowest-rated automatic qualifiers doing the same in the “First Four” event in Dayton, Ohio. This whittles the field down to 64 teams.
But these changes, these expansions…do they make the tournament better? Why so many format updates over the last 30 or so years?
Perhaps the better question to ask isn’t “Why?” but rather “What is the ideal state for the postseason championship, and if this isn’t it why aren’t we there yet?”
The incremental changes that have occurred over the years have been results of conference realignments, money, school politics, “how did they get in but not us?” discussions, television rights, etc.
Instead of jumping from 48 teams to 52 to 55 to 64 to 65 to 68, what’s the ideal format for crowning a champion objectively yet fairly? And is that even the priority? With so many teams NOT making the NCAA Tournament, and many of them seemingly in the subjective discussion to receive at-large selections to the tournament, can we say the process itself is fair?
There have been discussions to expand the field from the easily-structured 64 teams to 128. It’s even been explored to create a tournament with every team in NCAA Division I (the only teams eligible for the NCAA Tournament, which according to Sagarin is 345 schools aside from those deemed ineligible due to infractions).
So what I’d really like to know is why there are continual changes to the format of the tournament if there is a projected ideal state. Instead of jumping from change to change, just make the big change to how the NCAA Tournament should look and feel.