There was a collective online freakout on Tuesday when the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committe recommended expanding postseason tournaments to include roughly 25% of participating programs.

When applied to men’s basketball, this would bring more than 90 teams into the NCAA’s crown-jewel event. The mere thought of this was universally dunked on, present company included.

The primary fear, of course, is that the NCAA would be messing with perfection. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Especially when no one is knocking down doors to give some 17-15 team from the ACC access to the NCAA Tournament.

Well, no one except agents who can get coaches bonuses for an undeserved tourney appearance.

Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite on the basketball side to enforce this recommendation. And that’s a key word there — recommendation. Not a mandate. Or even a directive. We’re talking about recommendations.

As reported by CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, there’s no momentum for doing this from the men’s basketball committee. Nor does such a change even seem possible before the current media rights contract expires in 2032.

Thankfully, it’ll be nearly impossible for them to wreck the best event in sports. Yet, anyway.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think expansion wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if done the right way.

There is an extremely narrow path for that to work. But it is possible.

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Mission possible: Making an expanded tournament good

Each Selection Sunday comes with a necessary agony for those teams on the Tournament’s bubble. And each year, there’s at least 1 team, sometimes a handful, that causes us to say, “Man, how could you leave them out?”

That agony is often felt most acutely by mid- or low-major programs who failed to win their conference tournaments after putting together otherwise worthy resumes. And fixing that is the 1 way — truly the only way — in which tournament expansion can be made palatable.

A regular-season conference title should mean something. Arguably, it should mean more than winning the made-for-TV conference tournaments. But that’s not the way the thing is currently structured.

With expansion, that can change.

A regular-season title would guarantee a tourney berth. But conference tournaments would still come with a major incentive. Teams would still need to win their conference tournaments in order to bypass the preliminary round of the NCAA Tournament.

It would work like this:

  • What we currently consider the Round of 64 would begin with 48 teams receiving a bye — all 32 conference tournament champs, plus 16 at-large teams.
  • What we currently consider the First Four expands to 32 teams, 16 of which would advance to fill out the Round of 64. Four play-in winners would join the 12 already set in each region.
  • The best seeding solution would be to slot the play-in winners in the 8 vs. 9 and 7 vs. 10 games. In theory, this would protect the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the second round as they’d face an opponent playing its third game in 6 days.

That format brings expansion to a far more acceptable total of 80 teams rather than the 90 or more recommended by the transformation committee. But it still accomplishes the stated purpose of creating more access to deserving teams while not watering down the overall product too badly.

Only 12 more teams would be in the field. And it would actually benefit the little guys more than mediocre high-major teams.

Last season, 11 regular-season conference champions missed the NCAA Tournament. In 2019, the previous postseason with a full NIT, 10 regular-season champs missed out on the field. These are the programs that would take up the vast majority of those 12 extra spots.

Rather than disincentivizing the regular season, tournament expansion would make the regular season far more important for schools outside of the power conferences. This would pack gyms at smaller schools for critical regular-season matchups, which is a net benefit for college basketball as a whole. Winning those games gives you something more meaningful than a conference tournament seed.

Furthermore — and this is just a theory — it’s possible fewer regular-season champs would stumble in their conference tournaments.

With an NCAA Tournament bid already secured, there’s less pressure on players who know a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is at stake. Bid thieves wouldn’t exist.

So, in that regard, some high-major bubble teams could end up benefitting from this format as well. You might see only 6 or 7 mid- and low-major regular-season champs losing in conference tourneys with the pressure cooker turned down.

No need to mess with perfection, but…

Though we like to think of the NCAA Tournament as the perfect sporting event, it’s merely the closest to perfection. There are still some flaws.

Most notably, no conference champion should be forced to play in the First Four. This was a compromise when the field was expanded from 64 to 68, because initially the big schools wanted 8 16-seeds to play each other in that round.

That’s precisely the opposite of how the thing should work. And it needs to be tweaked at some point.

Hopefully, it’s the only adjustment the NCAA ultimately makes.

If expansion ever becomes fait accompli, 80 teams is the right number. But only if it’s done in a way that prioritizes teams who had great seasons over those just limping into the field. There’d be more chances for the Cinderella stories that drive the Tourney’s popularity.

And that would enhance, rather than harm, college basketball’s excitement in March and the months before.