Four big questions on my mind when it comes to this tournament expansion.
1) How is this thing going to work and what will be the new controversies??
The logistics of how this 96 team tourney would work would be interesting to say the least. Sounds like it would still start on a Thursday, but it would pretty much go on uninterrupted for the next two weeks. You'd have the bottom 64 teams playing Thursday and Friday, then the winners playing the first round bye teams on Saturday and Sunday, and then they'd just plug away with the newly created 3rd round on Monday and Tuesday and the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 coming later in the week. In other words, basically eleven consecutive days of March Madness. Pretty sweet when you think about it like that.
Seeding would still be important, but it seems like it would be much more unpredictable. If you're a 1 seed, who are you getting in the 2nd round game?? Presumably, the 1 seeds would be playing the 15-16 seeds, but who would those teams be?? Would the NCAA try to line up smaller schools in those spots or would those spots go to the teams that would normally make the NIT?? The Daytons of the world. Imagine if you're Kentucky and earned your way to the top seed and now you're playing Dayton as a 16 seed in the first round. That would be nuts.
The awarding of first round byes would become the new controversy for the talking heads to discuss. The difference between an 8 and 9 seed right now is none in terms of positioning, but the difference in the new format would be substantial. The 8 seed teams would get a bye, and the 9 seeds would be stuck in some first round game. How can you really differentiate there?? It would be completely arbitrary.
Then again, as we've seen for years in the conference tournaments, getting a bye in the first round might work as a disadvantage. How many times have we seen a team get a little momentum in the conference tournament from playing a first round game and then catch a a first round bye team napping a little bit?? Happens in almost every league tourney. I could see that happening in the NCAAs as well.
Imagine if you're a 4 seed Maryland who has scraped and clawed to get that first round bye and a good seed. Now, you're staring at playing the winner of a 13 vs. 21 seed matchup where the winner has gotten warmed up a little bit and had a chance to shoot on those rims and get a feel for their environment. Wouldn't that be a disadvantage?? With the new seeding, that 13 seed could be somebody like Mississippi State (who barely missed the NCAAs as an at large team)?? That would be a brutal matchup.
Bottom line, expect a TON of parity and upsets and crazy first round matchups and blown up brackets. If you like that stuff, great. But if you don't like seeing a Sweet 16 with 9 seeds and 12 seeds all over the place, this is not the format for you.
2) What would be bad about the 96 team tournament??
You mean besides the fact that it would completely devalue the regular season and destroy the importance of the conference tournaments?? The top teams would be playing for seeding of course, but the majority of the BCS conference teams out there now are going to head into every season knowing that all they need to do is pull off a winning record to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Think about this for a second if you look at this past season. 13 Big East teams would have made the NCAA Tournament this year. THIRTEEN!! Out of sixteen. You'd have the 8 teams that made the NCAAs, and the other 5 teams who made the NIT since the NIT is basically being swallowed up by the 96 team tourney. That's insane!! Every team in the Big East can go into the season thinking that all they need to do is avoid finishing last and they're probably in. Win 6-7 Big East games, load up the nonconference with cupcakes, and you're dancing. The regular season becomes completely meaningless.
The ACC is the same way. 9 out of the 12 teams in the ACC would have made it this year. This is the national championship!! Why do we need a 20-16 NC State team that finished 5-11 in its own conference to determine a national champion?? This whole thing just invites rampant mediocrity.
It's just a shame that making the NCAA Tournament will no longer be considered an accomplishment in itself. Everyone with a pulse is going to make this thing. If you're puffing your chest about making a tournament where teams that went 5-11 or 6-12 in their own conference are getting in, that is going to look a little silly.
The conference tournaments are going to take the biggest hit though. What else is there to play for other than pride?? The bubble is essentially going to disappear, so no one will go into the conference tournament knowing they need to make a deep run to get in. That bums me out. I will miss all the bubble talk. Unless you actually think that we should be having serious discussions about the teams on the bubble for the 96th spot. And I refuse to get involved in those discussions.
What is Joe Lunardi going to do?? His whole gimmick is the NCAA bubble. With no bubble, his whole Bracketology thing is sort of diminished. He can still predict the seeds and the field and all that, but it's not the same without the bubble discussions.
3) What would be good about an expanded field??
Well, I don't want to make it sound like this thing would be a complete disaster. 96 teams means an additional 16 games on the docket. That's 16 thrillers and nailbiters and intense matchups. Isn't that a good thing?? I will watch any sporting event that involves single elimination. This tournament is still going to be a basketball smorgasbord for hoops fans.
The other positive effect I could see is that the expanded tournament creates a little stability within the Big East. Let's be honest, if you're a Rutgers or St. Johns or Providence or DePaul fan, you're probably ready to throw in the towel on Big East membership. You're probably eyeballing what Butler has done as a big fish in a smaller conference and thinking that you could go off to the Atlantic 10 or some other league and dominate and turn into the new Butler or Xavier. The Big East is so loaded with heavyweights right now that there just isn't much room for other schools to rise up and make a dent in this league. Who are you beating out for a spot in the NCAAs?? Nova?? West Virginia??
Now, with 96 spots in play, you can go into the season thinking you actually have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. It's a fairly realistic goal. Heck, St. Johns was in the NIT this year. If they do that again next year, they're in the tournament.
If teams think they can get into the NCAA Tournament out of the Big East, it'll do a lot to keep league members happy.
Then again, maybe the NCAA will use more of those 32 extra spots to get smaller schools in, which would create the reverse effect. Being in the Big East would be a disadvantage under that scenario, especially if you are finishing 12th-13th in the league. We'll have to see how the NCAA treats the expanded field in terms of participants. I could definitely see some sort of initiative to get more non-BCS schools into the field.
4) How does tournament expansion affect Notre Dame basketball??
First, from a selfish point of view, I think that more spots in the dance is a good thing for Notre Dame basketball. How could it not be??? I mean, we're the quintessential fringe NCAA tournament team. We play in a loaded conference, we have middle-of-the-pack talent in our league, we're generally in the 7-11 win range in terms of conference wins, and we're on the NCAA bubble (either in or out) at some point virtually every single year. Take a look at our last seven seasons:
2003-04 - 19-13 (9-7) - NIT
2004-05 - 17-12 (9-7) - NIT
2005-06 - 16-14 (6-10) - NIT
2006-07 - 24-8 (11-5) - NCAA
2007-08 - 25-8 (14-4) - NCAA
2008-09 - 21-15 (8-10) - NIT
2009-10 - 23-12 (10-8) - NCAA
By my recollection, we were firmly planted on the bubble in 03-04 and 04-05, and a lot of people thought we got hosed when we didn't get those years. The 05-06 team had like eight extremely close losses that could have gone either way, and we were sort of a fringe bubble team for most of the year. The 06-07 team was on the bubble to some degree before playing its way definitively into the field. The 07-08 team was in pretty good shape most of the way. The 08-09 team was all over the bubble before fading late, and the 09-10 team was the same way but actually played its way in.
If you had a 96 team field, we would have gotten in every single one of those years. I don't necessarily like this 96 team field because it dilutes a great tournament, but it's probably a good thing for Notre Dame basketball. If ND is playing NCAA Tournament games, I'm happy.
It will be interesting to see how Mike Brey reacts to the expanded tournament terms of nonconference scheduling. Will he continue to line up cupcakes to try to squeeze out 18-22 wins every year and a guaranteed NCAA Tournament bid?? Or will he be more adventurous knowing that he has more leeway to lose some games?? Knowing how ND runs things these days, my guess is that we'll be lining up a lot of 300+ RPI teams to get 12-14 wins in nonconference play and a virtually guaranteed spot in the NCAAs.
RPI and Pomeroy ratings and all that will become a meaningless factor in terms of getting in. It will affect our seed, but does it really matter what seed you get in this bloated 96 team field?? Just get in and try to win some games. It's going to be much more like the conference tournament. Everyone is going to be fair game.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of tournament expansion for Notre Dame is how this whole thing is going to shape our expectations for the program. Ever since I became a student in the late 90s and started following ND basketball closely, the barometer for a successful ND basketball season has been to make the NCAA Tournament. If we made the NCAAs, that was generally enough to be considered a successful season.
But how are we going to judge the performance of this program going forward?? Making the NCAAs?? Winning a game or two?? Sweet 16?? Winning conference record?? It's tough to say. It's probably going to be a lot more of a gray area. "I know it when I see it." Going 19-14 (8-10) and losing in the first round of the new NCAA field is probably not going to satisfy too many people. I would guess that expectations will be similar to what they are now. Winning record in the Big East, decent seed, and try to make noise in the Big East and NCAA Tournament.
Then again, there are factions of ND fans who feel that Sweet 16s and beyond should be appropriate barometers for ND basketball and in terms of judging Mike Brey's performance, and I don't think those expectations are fair either. If ND gets really serious about basketball and spends the dollars and builds a big time practice facility and starts allowing academic exceptions, then I'll ramp up my expectations for Mike Brey. For now, I think he's done a good job with this program, and I'd be fine with Brey spending the rest of his coaching career at ND. If he continues to do what he's been doing and wins 20+ games and has a winning record in Big East play, I'd consider that to be a good year for ND basketball. Anything better would be gravy.