Before we look at college basketball, let’s take a look at the FBS playoff. Currently, the playoff includes the four ‘best’ teams. ‘Best’ of course, can mean different things to different people, but let’s assume the four teams selected are indeed, the best of what’s around. Currently 130 teams play at the FBS level. So, the playoff includes about 3% of the FBS population.
expanded to 68 teams. I was not a huge fan of this development, but no one consulted me. About 350 teams have played Division I basketball each season since the field expanded, give or take. This means that roughly 20% of all teams playing DI basketball make the playoff.
bitched about the tournament not expanding despite more teams moving up to Division I. Boeheim is partially right. Twenty years ago, there were only 305 teams playing collegiate basketball at the highest level. DI membership has increased by about 15% in the last two decades. However, those newcomers are not competing with Syracuse for a bid to the tournament. Teams like Longwood and Cal State Bakersfield are competing with teams of similar history and stature for one automatic ticket to the Big Dance. In April, I wrote a piece regarding at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. I’m still waiting on my Pulitzer, but the conclusion is that there are essentially eight leagues that dominate the pool of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Those leagues are the Power Five football conferences, the Big East, the American, and the Atlantic-10. If you don’t play in one of those leagues (or are not a certain private institution located in Spokane, Washington), you don’t have much of a shot at the national title. However, if you do play in one of those leagues, there is basically a two in five five shot you will make the playoff.
The way I see it, the FBS playoff needs to strike a balance between being egalitarian and preserving the importance of the regular season. If FBS used the same 20% ratio as DI basketball, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 teams (which is the size of the FCS playoff). That is probably a little too big. Similarly, if FBS used the 40% ratio of Power Five teams, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 Power Five teams. This would render the regular season pretty much useless. The tone deaf fans and coaches angry at star players for sitting out glorified exhibitions would lose their minds if a star player sat out a regular season game with a playoff bid already secured.
So what is an optimal size for a playoff bracket? I have two suggestions, and since I am a mid-major apologist, they both include accommodations for Group of Five teams.
Proposal # 1:
Eight-team field with automatic bids to each Power Five conference champion, an automatic bid to the highest ranked Group of Five team, and two at-large spots.
I’m open to altering this one slightly to eight at-large spots with a guaranteed spot to the highest ranked Group of Five team. The past few seasons, nearly every Power Five champion has at least been in the conversation for a playoff spot, but in cases like say the ACC in 2008, a Power Five conference champion may not necessarily merit a bid. In addition, removing the conference champion provision gives Notre Dame a fairer shake.
Sixteen-team field with automatic bids to each FBS conference (ten total) and six at-large spots.
This is my personal preference because it guarantees the Sun Belt and MAC at least have a theoretical chance at winning the national championship. It also virtually guarantees every top-ten teams makes the playoff as the Power Five conference champions would likely account for at least four of the top-ten teams. Of course, this is probably the most unrealistic option as this would require the national champion to play seventeen games which would keep the student athletes away from classes for too long (wink wink) and also require them to play a physically taxing and potentially debilitating sport even longer for free.
Playoff expansion is coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Thankfully, the nature of football means expansion has its limits. The regular season will still matter, and even with an expanded bracket, we will probably never end up with a champion as bad as NC State or Villanova.