This time of year, everyone is focused on the upcoming NCAA tournament. And they should be. It's a great tournament, in which any team can get hot for a couple games and make a name for themselves. It's enduring popularity is attested by the untold millions of man-hours that are wasted by basketball fans slacking off at work or playing hooky so they can take in the tournament's first few crazy days.
But before we can get to that, we have to select the 64 (ok, 65) teams that are given bids to this tournament. Some teams will play their way in through their conference tournament, while others will be given at-large bids based on their play over the course of the season. And everyone's concerned about seeding -- who you play, and where you play, and which teams you get to avoid until later rounds. In some room somewhere, some group of people figure all this out, and the results are mostly fair. A few teams every year get left out that most people thought should be in, but it's always a case of one team with a marginal résumé being selected over another with an equally marginal résumé.
Still, there's always the arguments that fans of their teams will have...what if our team was just given a chance, or perhaps an opening game that wasn't against a No. 1 seed in an area 8 miles from their campus? What if everybody stood on equal footing? And there's always the nuts (usually fans of perennial bubble teams) that say, "Maybe we should expand the NCAA Tournament again. What about 96 teams?" What about it, indeed. While we're on the subject, what about 128? Or 256? OK, when you start extending the logic ad absuritum, you start to see how such a premise not only strains the NCAA's powers of orgnization (the logistical nightmares of a tournament that is already three weeks long can only multiply by extending it another week, and that doesn't even account for finding places for all these teams to play), but also its bottom line (how many tickets can you sell for a No. 1 vs. No. 64 seed opening game? or, for that matter, No. 19 vs. No. 46?).
No, I think we should keep the tournament at its current size (actually, I think we should lose the play-in game and the last at-large bid -- hardly anyone will miss either one). However, I think I've got a better idea:
Instead of altering the format of the current NCAA Tournament, which I think everyone will agree has been wildly successful, let's supplement it instead with a different sort of championship: an in-season, randomly-seeded, everyone-invited single-elimination tournament. A knock-out cup. (Yes, I'm shamelessly borrowing this idea from English Football.)
Everyone is invited. Everyone gets a shot. Maybe not a fair shot -- but if you get screwed by the seeding, there's no closeted committee to blame, only lottery balls. And neutral-site games are strictly limited to the final few games. But unlike current in-season tournaments, where the big bad major school playing in a huge arena hosts a couple of chumps in the opening rounds, every team gets a random shot at hosting games, maybe against those same big baddies. Yes, you'll still get schools like UCLA hosting Cal State Fullerton -- but maybe instead, you get Cal State Fullerton hosting UCLA! Maybe you get James Madison hosting North Carolina, or Creighton hosting Kansas. Who knows? Or maybe it's Texas hosting Kansas in an opening-round game. Unfair? Maybe. But think of the drama!
OK, sure, this sounds like fun, you might say, but it also sounds like the farfetched pipe dream of a random internet blogger who will never have to go though the trouble of actually implementing such a scheme. Perhaps. I can't say it doesn't have a whiff of "crackpot idea" to it. But not only do I honestly think it would be great entertainment, I've actually gone through and thought about some of the logistics here, so let me walk you through how I think something like this would *actually* work.
First of all, there are currently 347 teams in Division I. The current 64-team NCAA tournament involves teams needing to win 6 games to win the title. A 256-team tournament would involve a bracket that goes 8 games deep, but to cover all 347 teams currently playing, we would need to have some teams play (up to) 9 games. Fair? Maybe, maybe not, but again, since everyone gets a random chance at it, there's no bias to complain about. To try and make it up to those teams that need to play an extra game, the winners of these opening-round games would be guaranteed the right to host a game in the next round. Depending on the matchups presented, a team might prefer to play an extra game rather than to start out on the road.
Another consideration is travel costs, especially many of the smaller schools in the tournament won't necessarily have very large travel budgets. To help alleviate these concerns, the bracket will be regionalized on several levels. First of all, we will divide the country into four regions -- West, Midwest, East and South, much like the NCAA tournament. But instead of these names referring merely to the location of the finals, we will actually divide the 347 Division I teams into the four regions based on geography, about 88 teams per division. Teams in the West Region, for example, would never have to travel past the Mississippi to play any games before the tournament semifinals, and teams in the other regions, where schools (and people) are closer together would have to travel even less.
Then, each region will be further divided into four subregions each, for a total of 16 subregions, each with approximately 22 teams (allowances are made to restrict unreasonable travel, but in no case will a subregion have fewer than 20 or more than 24 teams). These subregions will be used to further condense travel for the opening rounds.
Here is a sample subregional involving Cal (includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada-Reno and Northern California):
Washington, Washington State, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, Seattle, Oregon, Oregon State, Portland, Portland State, Idaho, Boise State, Idaho State, Nevada, California, Stanford, San Jose State, Fresno State, St. Mary's, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Pacific, UC Davis, Sacramento State
This example is not to show how the divisions *should* be done, but only how they *could* be done.
To build a bracket, we first divide each subregional into 4 'pods' consisting of either 5 or 6 teams. Divisions are done completely randomly, with no regard to conference affiliation whatsoever -- if conference rivals meet in the opening round, so be it. It could even be a fun November preview of conference play.
Drawing 5 teams out to form a pod, like thus:
UNLV, USC, Hawaii, New Mexico State, New Mexico
means that UNLV will host USC, and the winner will host Hawaii. At the same time, New Mexico State will get to host New Mexico. The UNLV/USC/Hawaii winner will then get to host the New Mexico State/New Mexico winner for the right to move on past this pod. I'll write such an arrangement like thus:
(UNLV, USC), Hawaii | (New Mexico State, New Mexico)
Pods of six will look similar, except they will have an extra team waiting to play the New Mexico State/New Mexico winner before both sides of the pod meet up. Here is a sample:
(Idaho State, Oregon), Sacramento State | (Stanford, Nevada), Oregon State
Now, to keep things interesting, instead of having each of the four pod winners in each subregional play each other, we randomize each of the sixteen pods in a region, so that once winners exit their pods, they might have to play anyone all over the region. Any one team's final path to victory might look something like this:
2-3 games - Subregional opponents
4 games - Regional opponents
2 games - National opponents (Semifinals and Finals)
Finally, I've gone ahead and done a complete draw for a fictional West Region. If you're wondering, I did this draw by running a random algorithm on my computer, and these were in fact the results of my very first draw -- I did not re-run it to try and get different results in an attempt to make this article more appealing to certain audiences.
(North Texas, Lamar), Texas - San Antonio | (Texas Tech, UTEP), Rice
(Utah, Utah Valley), Utah State | (BYU, Montana State)
(North Dakota, Nebraska), South Dakota State | (Wichita State, Weber State), Northern Colorado
(Seattle, Fresno State), Santa Clara | (UC Davis, Washington), San Jose State
(Texas Pan American, Texas), Tulsa | (Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Oklahoma State), Prairie View A&M
(Colorado State, Air Force), Creighton | (Kansas, Colorado)
(UCLA, San Diego State), Cal Poly | (UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State), San Diego
(UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton), Arizona | (UC Irvine, Pepperdine)
(Oral Roberts, Oklahoma), Texas A&M | (Texas State, SMU), Houston
(North Dakota State, Southern Utah), South Dakota | (Kansas State, Wyoming), Montana
(UNLV, USC), Hawaii | (New Mexico State, New Mexico)
(Texas Southern, Sam Houston State), Stephen F. Austin | (Baylor, Texas - Arlington), TCU
(Idaho State, Oregon), Sacramento State | (Stanford, Nevada), Oregon State
(Cal State Northridge, Loyola Marymount), Cal State Bakersfield | (Northern Arizona, Arizona State)
(Boise State, Washington State), Portland | (Gonzaga, California)
(Pacific, Eastern Washington), Portland State | (San Francisco, Idaho), St. Mary's
For something in a more traditional format, the whole bracket can also be found here.
North Texas, by virtue of being at the very top of this bracket, gets the favored position, securing home-court advantage throughout the tournament. Of course, should they lose at home to Lamar, Lamar would then get to host games until they lose. On the flip side, Pepperdine opens the tournament at UC Irvine, and no matter how far they advance, they will never get to host a game. Maybe next year.
Cal gets a tough early draw. They don't have to play a play-in game, but they do have to open at Gonzaga, a game that I'm sure would draw TV exposure should it happen next year. Win in Spokane, and the Bears would have to stay in the Pacific Northwest, playing a road game at either Boise state, Washington State or Portland. Get past that, and they do get to finally host a game, with St. Mary's probably being the scariest team on the other side of the bracket. Win there, and it's back on the road, quite possibly at one of four Pac-10 teams -- Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford or Arizona State. Win that game, and then the competition takes another step up. The Bears would get a second and final home game, but lurking on the other side of the bracket are such teams as Texas, Kansas, UCLA and Arizona. And so on from there.
Yes, a lot of these opening round games will be ignored nationally (Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside, anyone?), but I'm guessing that at least the local UC Riverside fans will get excited to be part of this tournament. And if Riverside wins? Then they get to host Arizona! When else was UC Riverside going to get a chance to host the Wildcats? With a chance to advance in a national tournament? The scene on campus would be huge.
Of course, with randomness, you do sometimes get big-time schools hosting smaller schools that have very little chance of winning. Kansas State hosts Wyoming to open the tournament, while San Diego State has to travel to UCLA. Same ol', same ol'. But also in the opening round, UC Davis gets to host the University of Washington! Considering how bad the Huskies have been this on the road this year, it's not inconceivable that the Aggies could win, and with the rest of their pod filled with San Jose State, Seattle, Fresno State and Santa Clara, Davis would have an excellent chance of advancing beyond that.
OK, so that's the bracket, but when are all these games (346 of them!) going to be played? After all, teams already have a full non-conference schedule. Well, obviously we're going to have to cut into some of those games, but honestly, who's going to miss a few of those games anyway? When UCLA hosts Cal State Fullerton in the middle of November, even Bruins fans probably struggle to care. But if that same game were part of larger tournament, with the winner moving on and the loser sitting home and watching, well, now I might tune in.
My idea would be that the first round of games (play-in + opening round) would be scheduled so as to use up an entire week of play -- perhaps the second week of the season, in late November. After the bracket lottery is drawn (probably the previous April or May, after the previous season is over), teams will know their opening round opponents and can plan for/schedule these games. During this week, no other games/tournaments are scheduled; the nation's college basketball fans are focused on the madness that would be this truly nationwide tournament. The following week (after Thanksgiving), we'd play the finals for each pod. Other games might be scheduled this week, and as teams wouldn't necessarily know if they'd be playing in this round, and against whom, so it might take a little bit of finageling to get these games scheduled and played, but I'm confident it could be done.
Once teams entered general regional play, there would be a total of four rounds for teams to get to the national semifinals. I would slow down the tournament at this point, taking two weeks for each round, which gets us through December and January. There are two ways you could go about this:
1) Leave it up to the teams in question to schedule their next-round game any time within the two-week window. This gives the most flexibility to teams, especially those that may have not anticipated advancing as far as they did.
2) Reserve one or two nights a week specifically for the tournament. Say, Monday nights are tournament nights, and as the tournament advances, there are fewer and fewer teams left, thus fewer games, thus bigger and bigger television audiences for the next round.
Finally, for the national semifinals and finals, reserve a weekend in February on a neutral court somewhere. Some major NBA arena. Madison Square Garden? Staples Center? Maybe combine this event as a nightcap to something like the BracketBusters event that ESPN has run the last few years. Major TV exposure. Could be a preview of the NCAA Tournament Final Four, but I'd bet at least a couple of the teams that end up in the semifinals will be different; some teams come on strong towards the end of the season, but in this tournament, those slow-starting teams might be knocked out in December.
Does a tournament like this give us the best team in the nation? Quite probably not. But it does produce a champion, and no one can say they were excluded. It would also produce a lot of drama, and quite a lot of fun. Yes, I know that "drama" and "fun" aren't what ultimately drives these decisions. But you know what? I'll bet a tournament like this would produce quite a lot of $$$, too.