March Madness basketball, NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament continues to have parity. Is now the right time to expand it?


As mid-major basketball continues to close the gap with the power conferences, and major upsets become more common, there have been outcries to increase the number of teams that play in March Madness. What do some of the CBB Review writers think of this potential change and its effect on college basketball?

Dan Siegel

I’ve always been a proponent of new ideas when it comes to sports, even if it seems drastic. I was all in favor of NIL, relaxing the transfer restrictions, etc. Even professionally, I embraced the pitch clock in Major League Baseball.

When the tournament expanded to 64 in 1985, it made sense. The number of D-I teams was growing and had reached 283 so only 22% of teams were represented even after that rule change. In 2023, there were 363 D1 teams so just 19% of teams were represented in March. Expanding to 96 this coming season would raise that percentage to about 26%. So statistically, it would make sense to expand at some point but maybe not quite yet.

Otherwise, the additional games being played would still be quality basketball. The condition I would like is that both the regular season AND conference tournament winners get bids, rather than more mediocre power conference teams being rewarded. All in all, I am not opposed to the inevitable further expansion of the NCAA Tournament but don’t think it desperately needs to happen right now.

Matt Waldman

A few years ago, when the NCAA was trying to figure out how to have a tournament in the middle of a pandemic, the idea of inviting every Division I team to participate in March Madness surfaced. It was immediately scoffed at by just about everyone. And yet, it’s an idea that I’ve toyed with ever since. This would eliminate the need for conference tournaments. Instead, everyone plays out the regular season before letting the NET, everyone’s favorite rankings system, seed the teams in a snake format. As many play-in games as needed are added, starting at a 16 vs. 17 seed format, 15 vs. 18, and so on, which allows for flexibility as teams continue to make the jump from Division II. The top seed in each of the 16 regions would host all the way through until the new Sweet 16, which includes each region’s winner. In this way, you provide an advantage to the top teams that should be proving why they were a top-16 team to begin with. From there, you can use the traditional system where there are four super regional locations for the last games as well as a venue for the new Final Four and National Championship.

In theory, this method works because the top teams, who should have better talent and depth, will showcase that on their way to winning their region, cutting down on Cinderellas that so many fans of power conference teams hate. On the flip side, everyone has a true chance to win a title, and the many deserving mid-majors that often get left out on Selection Sunday get their shot just like everyone else. Do I think a 363-team tournament is in the cards anytime soon? No. Will it ever happen? Probably not. But the argument of logistics and feasibility is not as complicated as anyone wants you to believe.

Matt Karner

The complication I see is that the tournament right now is the perfect length. Three weekends and it’s complete. It’s unlike anything in professional sports where you forget teams are still playing when your team is out. A simple three weeks that gives everyone – die-hard fans and those only filling out a bracket – for fun something easy quick and simple to enjoy.

Expanding may actually cut down on the profits that are made. Yes, there will be more games but that also means more arenas and possibly not more viewership. Money payouts to conferences may not be nearly as much because teams will win and I think ultimately will lead to even more of a discrepancy between power schools and mid-majors. And let’s not forget that if you expand the men’s tournament you have to expand the women’s tournament. Baker is already having a group check-in on the disparities between men and women. Expanding basketball may also mean expanding every sport which would be a nightmare.

George Bagwell

I’ve always loved the 68-team format, not just because it’s all I’ve ever known, but also because it makes me feel like I can obtain a perfect bracket. (Spoiler alert: I can’t.) There are legitimate reasons why a 96-team tournament could work, especially after seeing the success of the First Four teams in recent years and the expansion of Division I to 363 teams.

However, getting to the tournament is the goal for a lot of smaller programs that (realistically) don’t have a shot to win it all. Expanding the field to almost 100 of 363 teams would dilute that feeling of accomplishment that mid-majors get when they get walk out to sold-out arenas in March. Sure, the expansion would allow some mid-majors that faltered in their conference tournament to reach the Big Dance. But it would also probably let in Power 6 teams that go .500 on the season, and the quality of basketball would decrease. I like seeing good basketball in March. Overall, the expansion isn’t something I want to see, at least for a while. Stick with the current format, because I think it’s perfect.

Ariel Puterman

As a fan of sports, I think it should expand to 96. More games mean more upsets and more great finishes. As a fan of college basketball, I think it should stay as is. It leads to more competitive games throughout and while you can make the argument that a team being snubbed can win the whole thing, we haven’t seen that yet. With the extra COVID year running out soon as well, we’ll see less parity than in the last few years.

I do think a few things need to change. The selection committee needs to be more consistent in seeding year over year. It seems like their criteria change every year and the bubble selections sometimes make no sense. I also think the auto-bid rule will have to be adjusted. A lot of the mid-major teams know that they need to win to get in, and a whole season’s worth of work can be lost on an unlikely night. Either the conference tournaments or the NCAA will need to find a way to value the regular season more when it comes to March, or college basketball will fall into the same problem as the NBA, where the regular season is taken for granted.

Mat Mlodzinski

Yes. Yes. Yes. Expand and don’t look back. Let’s look at a few statistics about playoffs in professional and collegiate sports:

  • In the NBA, there are 30 teams. 20 make the playoffs/play-in. That’s 67%.
  • In the NHL, there are 32 teams. 16 make the playoffs. That’s 50%.
  • In the NFL, there are 32 teams. 14 make the playoffs. That’s 44%.
  • In the MLB, there are 30 teams. 12 make the playoffs. That’s 40%.
  • In FBS college football, there are 133 teams. While only 4 (and soon to be 12) make the actual college football playoff, last year, 82 appeared in bowl games. That’s 62%.

In college basketball, the current standard to make the NCAA Tournament is astronomically higher. Of the 363 Division I teams competing in the 2022-23 season, only 68 made the big dance. That’s 19%. Even if you include the NIT (32 teams) and CBI (16 teams), only 32% of teams make it to any postseason tournament.

To play devil’s advocate, having such a strong field makes it hard to deny the best of the best are playing. Sure, a few automatic qualifiers are outliers, but after the historic wins from UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson, are they actually that unworthy?

That brings me to my next point. Upsets are becoming so common, that it only means there are more teams being left out of the bracket that have what it takes to be in. 

I’m not calling on a 128-team bracket to make a whole extra round. But by adding another 12-16 teams, you could create even more exciting play-in games and in turn, reward some very deserving teams of a ticket into March Madness.