In college basketball's offseason, I think about what the selection committee got wrong, about what I got wrong and about my annual misevaluation of Syracuse.
But I think mostly about the NCAA tournament selection and seeding process. Is it the best that it can be? Are we using the right data? Is it fair and open and inclusive?
This summer, though, something else has come up, mostly because a number of coaches have reached out on a seemingly separate topic: the size of the NCAA tournament field. The same ad hoc National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) committee, which last summer weighed in on selection metrics, is now kicking the tires on expansion. No formal action or proposals are anticipated, at least not now. Still, it got me thinking.
We have been at 68 teams since 2011, yet there is nothing magical or even permanent about that number. It is an accident of circumstance more than anything.
"It's also outdated," one coach insisted. "Division I has grown by leaps and bounds since 1985, so we shouldn't be trapped by that number moving forward."
Since the launch of the 64-team era in 1985, we have indeed seen only minor changes to the bracket's format. The first tweak (2001-2010) added a 65th team and a single opening-round game, allowing for the newly formed Mountain West Conference to gain an automatic bid without decreasing the at-large pool.
A much greater expansion seemed likely for the 2011 tournament, as pending television rights negotiations had the NCAA modeling a 96-team field and an opening "weekend" of six days and three rounds -- with byes to the top 32 teams -- instead of the familiar four days and two rounds. The continuation of a trend toward more inventory from and more dollars for primary sports properties seemed inevitable.
That is until the new CBS/Turner partnership decided, essentially, not to mess with a very good thing. Most inside the sport breathed a sigh of relief as the "more, just because we can" approach was avoided. Three at-large bids were added to create the current First Four format, but the basics of the tournament were left untouched.
And it could stay that way for the duration of the latest TV deal, which was extended last year through the conclusion of the 2031-32 season. This, though, is what seems to have caught the negative eye of the NABC. No expansion means no job saving for coaches whose teams might be included in a larger NCAA field.
"I'm a coach," said a long-standing head coach in a traditional multibid conference. "If more teams get in, more guys keep their jobs. I would go to 96 [teams] right now and give more student-athletes a chance at the NCAA experience."
So which is it, preserving jobs or adding the experience? This is a national championship. For me, the first -- and perhaps only -- criteria should be including all deserving teams.
For the most part, college basketball gets it right. VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four in Year 1 of the 68-team field in 2011. Selection committee (or, for that matter, Bracketology) blunders are remembered mainly because they are so rare.
But that doesn't mean another tweak or two is a bad idea. Refining the interpretation of quality wins and adjusting a few columns on NCAA team sheets is a great step in the evaluation process, but it doesn't address the widening gap in bids awarded to major conference schools versus the high end mid-majors. Deserving teams are still being overlooked, albeit in smaller numbers.
Something is wrong when Illinois State can go 17-1 in a top-10 league and still, from recent selection committee experience, know that its NCAA chances aren't good. Or that Monmouth can beat UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown but miss the NCAA tournament because of a few bad bounces in a conference tournament.
It's a simple reality: Good teams from major conferences have margin for error; good teams from mid-major conferences do not. Modest expansion can correct this.
Instead of the current combination of First Four participants, let's investigate using the opening round for a floating number of regular-season champions who are not otherwise selected. If a variable number doesn't work for TV (and it probably wouldn't), determine a fixed number of said wild-card selections based on predetermined criteria that also adds needed value to the regular season.
For argument's sake, let's say we expanded the field by four to 72 teams. The additional wild cards -- last season's could have been regular-season winners Illinois State, UT Arlington, Monmouth and Belmont -- would play the last four at-large selections in what would be true "Bracket Buster" contests, typically matching power conference schools against smaller conference schools in compelling fashion. Winners become the four No. 12 seeds in the main bracket.
On the automatic qualifier side, we need to make the current one-bid league participants less isolated. Instead of four teams playing for two spots, make it eight for four. This would lead to a true tournament atmosphere at dual sites -- say, Dayton and someplace Midwest or West -- and give twice the number of non-major champions the thrill of advancing. Winners move on as the four No. 16 seeds, respectively.
So I say "yes" to expansion, but not for its own sake or to save a few coaching jobs. Let's be judicious and achieve a greater good. All we need is one more site and a second network.
In other words, we can do this. Everybody wins.