The ACC's NCAA Tournament Proposal Is Neat, but Is It Even Possible?

The ACC's proposal to put every team in the 2021 NCAA tournament is quite intriguing, but faces many severe logistical hurdles.
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What about the bracket?

This is not a glib question. There are glib answers—use the side of the Empire State Building, paint it on Devils Tower, convert drive-in movie screens—but it’s a serious question. How do you make a bracket for a 346-team NCAA tournament?

The suggestion to expand the Big Dance to infinity and beyond came out of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Wednesday. The proposal: Every eligible Division I men’s team gets a bid in 2021, with the opening rounds taking the place of conference-championship tourneys and early-round bracketing based on geography. By the second week, the tourney would look pretty much like normal: 64 to 68 teams.

All 15 ACC men’s basketball coaches in the nation’s premier conference signed off on it. The league office is behind it as well. We’ll see how much support this logistical clusterbomb of a concept can garner nationally.

NCAA tournament bracket outside the 2019 Final Four

First things first: This has to be bracketizable. The millions of casual fans who gravitate to March Madness to pick winners via a tree diagram cannot be discounted. Every office, every school, every bar and every barber shop needs a bracket that fits on a computer screen and/or a sheet of printer paper.

They can mess with every other aspect of the tournament—go back to peach baskets, whatever—but do not mess with the bracket. That’s nonnegotiable.

Beyond that? Let’s see what they come up with. A lot of people hate the concept. I kind of love it.

At the very least, the sentiment behind it is laudable:

  • Nobody got to play in the 2020 tournament. This time around, let’s give everyone a chance to experience the joy of March that went missing last spring. And no, this isn’t a Participation Trophy Syndrome situation: It’s been a hellish year for college athletes; why not look for ways to make their experience better?
  • Players thinking of opting out have some incentive to see the season through.
  • As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski put it: “This is not a regular season. It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative." This year is going to be a tub of live bait, so why try to use the normal tournament selection rules when they may not apply? If nonconference games disappear and scheduling is dictated by health protocol more than competitiveness, how is a selection committee supposed to decide who is in and who is out?
  • As noted above, this figures to be a wreck of a season from November(ish) through February. So college basketball should put all its eggs in the March basket and try to make sure the signature event is a success. And by all its eggs, they mean all the teams. Everything is a dress rehearsal for the big show.
  • College basketball leaders are trying to both think ahead and think collaboratively, two things strikingly absent from the Great Dithering Summer of College Football. For all the conference and campus athletic leaders who talked about having “18–20 models” for how to run a season, that eventually became a hollow boast as we reached August. Hope is not a strategy. And every power conference for itself is not responsible stewardship of the sport. NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt has been networking with schools nationwide to come up with season plans that work for the greater good, and creativity has been embraced. They’re giving it the old college try in hoops.
  • And finally: Where, exactly, is the harm? Since when is there such a thing as too much tournament basketball? Don’t talk to me about cheapening the regular season—have you see TV ratings for those games in recent years? This isn’t an abandonment of the customary Big Dance. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime response to (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances.

Now, moving past sentiment to logistics is where it gets difficult. Probably impossible, really.

First, the U.S. has to be in a much better place in terms of the coronavirus by March. Every other sport in the country is contracting its scope, for good reason. Nobody is signing off on a massive expansion of the NCAA tourney without major progress in terms of health and safety over where we stand today.

Second, this sort of thing would presumably be a major uptick in expense, without a commensurate bump in TV revenue. Maybe the TV rights holders would kick in some modest additional money, but they’re not going to open the vault to televise Duke's beating Maryland–Eastern Shore, Michigan State's beating Chicago State, Kentucky's beating Kennesaw State and Gonzaga's beating Cal Poly by 60.

Third, have I mentioned the bracket?

So it’s premature for there to be tears of joy in the basketball offices at William & Mary and Army, two of the schools that have never earned an NCAA tournament bid. Your free pass may not arrive.

Nor should coaches on the hot seat spend money to redecorate their houses. Your contractual tourney bonus and enhanced job security could die in a committee room in the near future.

But as someone who covered the Indiana high school basketball tournament when it was a single-class free-for-all with every school in the state invited, I champion the populist appeal of this plan. In Hoosier Hysteria, everyone went in dreaming, and there were victories along the way that resonated for decades in the small towns. There are still team photos and plaques on the walls of gymnasiums in that state commemorating the tiny schools that won a sectional title. The vast majority never sniffed a state title, but all tournament wins were cherished by the little guys.

If a 346-team NCAA tournament can give off the same vibe, that’s not a bad thing. After a devastating year without it in 2020, who can ever complain about having too much March Madness?

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