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A Sensible Approach To NCAA Tournament Expansion

It's increasingly looking like NCAA Tournament expansion is an inevitability, even if no firm decisions have been made.

As SB Nation's resident bracketologist, I can't say that I'm happy about the potential growth of the tournament to 96 teams. In fact, not too long ago, I argued that we should scrap the play-in game and go back to a 64-team field.

Teams already have the opportunity to play their way into the field both through the regular season and the conference tournaments, which act as a de facto set of preliminary games for the main event.

Plus, from a completely selfish standpoint, I've had a hard enough time over the past few weeks trying to find 34 at-large teams for a bracket. I really don't want to contemplate having to find 65. 

In my opinion, the NCAA will expand the field in the simplest way possible. The NIT will simply disappear, folded into the NCAA field. The new 96-team field will be filled with mediocre-to-poor major conference teams, with the occasional cameo from a deserving mid-major.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Earlier this evening, I discussed the matter through a series of text messages with a friend, and he gave me an idea for expansion that keeps the purist and mid-major lover in me happy.

This idea is actually an extension of a tournament reform proposal I explored over the summer, just modified to reflect the new 96-team reality college basketball seems to be racing toward.

The solution is simple. Reward good performances in both the regular season and conference tournaments by granting each conference two automatic bids.

Under my plan, each conference's regular season winner would get a spot, as a reward for a season's worth of excellence.

To keep the conference tournaments relevant, the winner of those events would get spots as well. If the regular season winner should sweep both titles, the team finishing in second place in the standings would get the conference's second bid.

Let's take a quick look at how the numbers would shake out if this scenario was applied to the field for my bracket projection for this week.

Of the 31 conferences who receive automatic bids to the NCAAs, 22 of these received only one bid this week. That number would double to 44 under my plan.  

The other nine conferences received multiple bids, accounting for the other 43 spots in the 65-team field. Under my plan, the number of auto bids for this group would jump from 9 to 18.  Their other 25 spots would be at-larges.

That means we'd have 62 auto bids and 25 at-larges, a total of 87 teams. We'd only have to find 9 more teams to reach 96.

So, much to my surprise, it is possible to expand the field while keeping the regular season relevant, keeps the importance of conference tournaments and helps ensure that the extra berths don't all go to mediocre major conference teams. 

Which means it doesn't stand a chance of actually happening.