Remaking March Madness

The NCAA basketball tournaments are upon us. Soon there will be brackets posted in places where brackets are seldom seen, and millions of fans will be pouring over them. It should be a good moment for Tourneygeek and his fellow tournament mavens, and I suppose it is, to some extent. But it would be much better if the tournaments were more sensibly run.

What’s wrong with March Madness? Essentially, the problem is that it’s organized in such a way as to maximize the number of dull, lop-sided fixtures. Rather than just complain, this year, I’ll suggest some changes that, within the basic parameters of the existing tourney, ought to make for a much more exciting and entertaining tournament. In this post, I’ll begin by describing some features of the current system.

Here are the existing parameters. 68 teams qualify for the tourney: 32 by virtue of winning a conference championship, and another 36 “at large” teams, notionally the best teams that don’t automatically qualify. These are by no means the best 68 teams in the country. A dozen or so of the conference champions are good enough that they would have been invited as at-large teams anyway, but the champions of many of the minor conferences would not.

The tourney is played over seven rounds – essentially on a 64-team, six round, bracket with four play-in games to accommodate the extra four teams. The play-in round offers some insight into how the selection committee assesses the quality of the at-large teams. In recent years, the practice has been to make the four worst at-large teams play in the play-in round, with the winner going to a line seeded 11th in its region. This implies that about 22 of the conference champions are worse than the most marginal at-large teams. (The other four teams in the play-in round are supposed to be the worst of the automatic qualifiers, who play for a couple of the 16th seed lines.)

Now, it might appear that this strange play-in round is the worst aspect of March Madness. No so. In fact, it’s one of the few features I’d keep if I were in charge. The March Madness play-in game has the same virtues as the wild-card game in Major League Baseball. It is the sole opportunity for the lowest-ranking teams in the tourney to play a game they might realistically win. No 16th seed has ever won a single game against a first seed team.

In the next post, I’ll suggest a way to expand the opportunities for lower-ranked teams beyond those offered by the play-in round.




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