How Will Expanding To 68 Teams Affect The NCAA Tournament?

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How Will Expanding To 68 Teams Affect The NCAA Tournament?

While hoops heads waited with bated breath the past several weeks as rumors swirled that they was considering expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams in the near future, the news that -- at least in the interim -- the tournament will only add three more spots for a field of 68 generated enormous relief. But what's still unclear is what, if any, impact this will have on our beloved rite of spring, aka March Madness.

Let's get this first bit out of the way: even though it hasn't been announced yet, the opening round games will pit No. 16/17 seeds against one another for the right to play the 1-seeds. The NCAA did not effectively add three more spots for the also-rans of the power conferences for those teams to knock each other out before the actual tourney gets going. So while the idea of having the last bubble teams square off for the right to play the 5-seeds might seem attractive out of fairness to the automatic qualifiers -- although it would create its own inequities, in that 5-seeds would arbitrarily get to play fatigued opponents -- it's a non-starter. And besides, as Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway explains, the goal is create the most balanced, objectively seeded tournament, not scintillating opening round:

Requiring the eight lowest-seeded teams to play an extra game would show that the NCAA’s using one criterion--fairness--for seeding the entire 68-team field. On the other hand creating play-in bubble showdowns, in addition to driving the entire United States to actually get their brackets in by Tuesday, would prove that "opening-round entertainment" had established itself as the animating principle behind the path laid out for eight teams. That would be a mistake. The tournament is sublimely entertaining in large part because we trust its outcomes, even if those outcomes commence rather quietly with the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Winthrop.

So yes: a 68-team tournament means that there will be a play-in game for 1-seed's opponent. But that still leaves us with the question of what this means for the tournament at large. At first, the answer seems to be: not much. After all, a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed (despite some close calls) in the 64-team era; those teams at the bottom of the bracket are more or less cannon fodder for the blue bloods on the top line. Except that the three additional spots in the field won't be going to 16/17-seed quality teams; they'll be reserved for the Virgina Techs and Minnesotas of the college landscape -- and pushing all of the teams below them down a seed line.

In other words: current 15 and 16-seeds will be the new 16 and 17-seeds. This might seem like a trivial difference...and it mostly is, just not entirely. Indeed, while 16-seeds are a woeful 0-for-everything in the tourney, 15-seeds have managed to topple a 2-seed a quartet of times. Of course, 1-seeds are tougher opponents than 2-seeds, but the bottom line is that the top line teams should expect to face some slightly tougher games against potentially better (albeit, less rested) teams. Given how close some 16-seeds have come to pulling off the ultimate David-over-Goliath upset in recent years, it wouldn't be too shocking to see a 1-seeds endure the ignominy of being the first to fall in the opening round sometime soon.

The effect should be even stronger in the 12-15 seed range. Looking at the history of how lower seeds have fared since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, there's a clear drop off between 14 and 15-seeds. While 15-seeds have been little better than their lower-seeded brethren, 14-seeds have been good for a win more or less every other year (of course, this is likely equally due to the difference in quality between 2 and 3-seeds as between 14 and 15-seeds). Likewise, a 13-seed will advance just about every season, while 12-seeds are notoriously adept at pulling off "shocking" upsets. And this is to be expected: as you go up the seed line the teams get a little better, and as you go down they get a little worse (assuming, of course, that teams are seeded well). So by shifting the seed lines up from about the 12-seeds on (where the last at-large teams typically get seeded), the most significant result is that the 2-4 seeds will face first-round opponents with better shots at knocking them off in the opening round, particularly the 3 and 4-seeds.

So don't fret: the 68 team tournament will look and feel the same as it did before, except with more opening round surprises. And that's a very good thing.

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