Several Top Coaches Support At-Large Play-In Games in 68-Team Field
SARASOTA, Fla. – So now what?
The NCAA decided to expand the men's basketball tournament to 68 teams for next season, but how will they add the additional three teams?
"Because of the number [68 teams] that's been created, we've put ourselves in a tough spot on how to do [the bracket] that's fair to everybody," Kansas State coach Frank Martin told FanHouse.
At the end of this month, the NCAA men's basketball selection committee will meet in Chicago to determine how to format next year's tournament. It will either be that: (a) teams will be seeded 1-17 with the bottom eight teams (the 16 and 17 seeds), which are automatic qualifiers from the smaller conferences, playing in four opening round games or (b) the final eight at-large teams playing in the opening round games and advancing to play a fourth-through-six seed in the field of 64.
Of the coaches FanHouse interviewed at the Dick Vitale Gala at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota recently, there's no question that they are most intrigued with the latter option.
"The [at-large] bubble teams playing would be a big bang right out of the gate on Tuesday," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "That would be an interesting idea to wake everyone up right away and play those games on Tuesday and go 'here we go.'"
CBS and Turner Sports paid $10.8 billion for the 14-year deal to televise the NCAA tournament. However, a source familiar with negotiations between the NCAA and CBS/Turner Sports told FanHouse that the NCAA made it clear that the NCAA -- and not television -- would dictate which model to use.
Still, new DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, who went to the past three NCAA tournaments at Clemson, is in favor of the final eight at-large teams meeting in the four play-in games.
"I think it will make for some great matchups," Purnell said. "You're always talking about bubble teams leading up to the tournament, so you're bringing that element into the tournament instead of leaving it out. It creates even more excitement."
The final four at-large teams historically have received between a No. 11 and 13 seed. So the play in games in this format would pit teams with the same seeds, either No. 11, 12 or 13, playing each other with the winner advancing to play a No. 4, 5 or 6 seed. This would give the lower seeded teams the advantage of already having played a game.
Butler coach Brad Stevens and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo both reached the Final Four last year as No. 5 seeds. If the new model had been in effect last season, the Bulldogs and Spartans would have opened the tournament against a team that already had won a game a few days earlier.
"If we had to play against a team that had already played, already traveled -- how do you pick us [a No. 5 seed to face that opponent] over a [No.] 3, a 4, a 6 or a 7 seed?" Stevens said.
Stevens added that the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds "have clearly earned the right," to avoid facing an at-large team that has already played.
"I don't know how they're going to decide it, but I've tried to go through it in my mind in being in those meetings and figuring out what the potential cons are," Stevens said. "It will be interesting to see what they decide. I think there are pros and cons each way."
While Stevens does not strongly prefer either model, he said he believes the regular season conference champions should receive automatic bids to the NCAA tournament.
Izzo, who has been to six Final Fours in the past 12 seasons, said he thinks the NCAA will decide to go with the option with the final eight at-large teams meeting in the play-in games. He also was in favor of expansion, but not to 96 teams. If the NCAA tournament added even more teams, schools would be more likely to schedule tougher non-conference opponents, he said.
"It's hard to figure out if you want to play those great schedules and have more losses," Izzo said. "We've always played a good [non-conference] schedule, but it gets a little dicey when you think: is it worth it to do that when you're in a major conference and you're going to get a high RPI anyway?
"It's a little scary. If there were more [NCAA berths available] I think you'd see better non-conference games, people wouldn't be as afraid to go out and schedule like -- to be honest -- like we do, we schedule the world."
Like Izzo, Villanova coach Jay Wright also is glad the NCAA tournament didn't expand to 96 teams initially.
"I do like going to 68 before we go to 96," Wright said. "I do like that. Just to get a feel for it. I still favor 96, but it will be interesting to look at this [68 teams] for a year or however long."
New St. John's coach Steve Lavin, a former ESPN analyst, said he and Brent Musburger were among the first to propose the model of four play-in games and a 68-team field.
"We broadcast the opening round games together in Dayton and it made sense to me -- we're bringing the [TV] trucks, let's make it two games in the afternoon and two in the evening," Lavin said. "Brand it, build it up."
Lavin said having the at-large teams play on Tuesday would create the most interest.
"If you took the last eight at-large teams, if you were to get a Syracuse, an Arizona State, a Virginia Tech or a St. Mary's, you'd have some really interesting mid-major against power conference matchups," Lavin said. "You'd have to tweak the formula where those winners [would advance] ... it would garner a whole lot of interest."
Martin, who guided Kansas State to the Elite Eight, said the NCAA should have gone even further and expanded to 128 teams.
"The easy thing to have done in my opinion -- if it's all about the experience of the student-athlete, which is what the NCAA is about -- should have been to go to 128 teams," Martin said. "That way everyone gets one more game. Now [with 68 teams] you're forcing X number of teams to play one more game.
"My thing is if you get in the NCAA tournament, there shouldn't be byes for anybody. Nobody should play more games than the other team to win [the national title]. They should have gone to 128 teams and everyone gets more game. If [expansion] is that important, they should have figured out a way to make that happen. If not, they should have left it as is."
As far as Brey is concerned, the Notre Dame coach said he really doesn't haven't a strong opinion for either format – as long as the Fighting Irish are in the field.
"When I got to Notre Dame, we hadn't been in the NCAA tournament for 10 years [since 1990]," Brey said. "Since I've been there, we've been to the tournament six out of the 10 years. We've also been close and missed.
"Just tell me where we have to play. I don't care what seed we are or where we're playing, we'll be there early. Do you know how hard it is to make the tournament? It was hard with 65. It will still be hard with 68 teams."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY