The men’s NCAA Tournament has featured 68 teams since 2011. Prior to that it was 65, and you might remember that when there was talk of expanding from 65, there was a push for a much larger expansion, and for a while it felt like the 2011 tournament would feature 96 teams.
When faced with that possibility, 68 felt essentially like the status quo, and while there have been some renewed calls for expansion in the intervening years, things have remained fairly stable. The ACC has decided it’s time to push further, though, and according to reports like this one from the Charlotte News & Observer, the conference will be proposing an expansion to 72 teams, essentially creating another First Four. A Second First Four, if you will.
The expansion proposal came from the ACC coaches, who noted the number of football teams that have postseason opportunities compared to basketball.
“The idea of having two First Fours, if you will, maybe geographic,” Swofford said. “That’s such a quick turnaround. You could have one maybe in Dayton and one in the western part of the states. But we will be proposing that.”
The football logic is, uh, bad. Yes, there are a ton of bowl games, but compared to college basketball and its 68 teams in the official championship tournament, football’s four-team playoff seems much less inclusive. When you factor in the NIT, CBI, and CIT, it would seem like basketball already has analogues for the various tiers of bowl games. As always with expansion, there are a few driving forces. The first is television; more First Four games might be good news for TruTV, and it would in theory give the NCAA more leverage in terms of selling the rights, though it comes with the risk of a watered-down product.
But the coaches don’t care about that. Coaches keep their jobs and receive bonuses based on whether or not they make the NCAA tournament, whether it’s the First Four or the tournament itself. Increasing the opportunity for teams to make the tournament is a fairly self-serving decision. That’s what drove the 96-team talk in 2010, and it’s what will drive any future talk of expansion, too.
There’s also a cynical self-serving element to the ACC proposing this, and that’s that if their new rule proposal really did create a Second First Four, it’s going to disproportionately hurt the smaller, one-bid leagues. Unless the new play-in games only feature at-large schools (which would be more fair and thus less likely to happen), one-bid leagues are going to lose a few slots in the actual tournament, and that’s a shame. The current system heavily favors power conference schools (and select mid-major teams) when it comes to at-large selections; the new slots aren’t going to go to schools like UMBC.
Those schools are just going to have to play each other more often just for the chance to do what UMBC just did. And that would be a real shame. It’s also not something the ACC cares about, which means we’ll have to wait and see what the rest of the sport thinks.