Field of 96? A Proposal for an Expanded NCAA Tournament

Field of 96? A Proposal for an Expanded NCAA Tournament

Mountain West Basketball

Field of 96? A Proposal for an Expanded NCAA Tournament


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Field of 96? A Proposal for an Expanded NCAA Tournament in 2021

All contingency plans should be on the table for the next March Madness.

Contact/Follow @andrewdieckhoff & @MWCwire

Could the NCAA Tournament expand to 96 teams?

As the likelihood increases for a college basketball season unlike any other, it has become open season for speculations about how the NCAA might proceed with its second-most popular sport. National outlets such as CBS Sports and The Athletic have dedicated thousands of words to enumerating nearly every scenario imaginable on how the 2020-21 hoops season might unfold.

Particularly noteworthy is Matt Norlander’s recent rundown of different tournament formats that the NCAA could adopt for its annual spring fling. While most options were presented in a positive light, his final suggestion – temporarily expanding the field to 96 teams – came with multiple all-caps warnings:




Clearly, Norlander isn’t sold on the idea of giving out extra bids.

Even so, he does outline a few broad strokes for a 96-team field would look, most notably suggesting that each conference would be awarded two automatic bids and divvy out the remaining 32 at-large bids to leagues “based on historical league performance.”

The idea is treated with such contempt, however, that its author goes into no further detail, leaving at least one reader to wonder what it would look like to play this tune out. With seemingly endless time to speculate until anybody in charge makes any official proclamations, we here at the Mountain West Wire are happy to tug on that thread.

Let’s make one thing clear before we begin: I’m not advocating for this proposed and very very hypothetical tournament format to become the new status quo. And just in case you’re worried that the idea is gaining traction with the powers that be, NCAA president Mark Emmert recently said that pulling off even a 64-team tournament in a bubble scenario would be “tough.”

He makes a fair point. But what if the NCAA were to split up an expanded 96-team field over multiple bubbles, with the winner of each regional bracket advancing to a separate Final Four weekend event?

There are a few reasons why this hypothetical 96-team model could make some sense if the non-conference season is eventually canceled or severely truncated:

  • It allows for tournament games to be played across five sites total and could reasonably be completed within four to five weeks, including rest periods.
  • It increases the total number of NCAA Tournament games being played, potentially helping the NCAA and its member programs recoup some of the financial losses suffered due to the lack of a 2019-20 postseason and assuming there is no non-conference play in 2020-21. A guarantee of multiple teams from each conference would increase the NCAA Tournament units earned by each league.
  • It recognizes that the typical at-large selection process would lose the context provided by non-conference games and accounts for the lack of data by giving more bids to programs from all 32 conferences, while attempting to preserve existing hierarchies among the leagues with regard to the distribution of at-large bids.
  • It removes the subjective NCAA Tournament selection process, which would be hindered by the lack of inter-conference data, replacing the typical 68-team bracket with four brackets, each of which are comprised of 24 teams chosen from eight predetermined, geographically proximal conferences.
  • It places an even greater importance on winning conference games, which seems reasonable in the hypothetical scenario in which the non-conference slate is axed.
  • It allows each conference to exercise its own judgment regarding how its representative teams will be selected (conference tournament, order of finish in league play, etc.), giving each team a clear and unchanging rubric for how to make the NCAA Tournament and the consequences for falling in the standings.

Is it an ideal solution? Of course not. However, it’s going to take some enterprising spirit to get college basketball back, and so we can’t be afraid to discuss taking a first step down a potentially slippery slope. Norlander pointed out in his piece that the tournament has only ever expanded – it has never contracted. It’s a fair concern.

But If there were ever a season for a break-the-glass contingency plan, this is it.

NCAA senior VP of college basketball, Dan Gavitt, recently told Andy Katz, “We’ll be flexible. We’ll be nimble and we’ll deliver what the country is desperately looking for again and that’s just an incredible March Madness tournament in 2021.”

Here’s hoping Gavitt is serious, because the proposal that follows will certainly test the tensile strength of the NCAA’s flexibility.

If nothing else, it has been a fun thought exercise to put this together, and in the end, it may not be the worst idea I will ever have. Here goes nothing. (And who knows? Maybe we’ll find a miracle cure tomorrow and all of this will be moot.)


By expanding the tournament, each league would still receive an automatic bid into the tournament, and further, each would be guaranteed one spot in round of 64 by virtue of its champion receiving a bye past the qualifying round. The remaining 64 at-large teams square off to see who fills out the bracket.

Of course, it would be naive to think that all leagues are created equal. But just how do you quantify the inequality that we know to exist between conferences?  One way is to look at the distribution of at-large bids granted to each conference over recent years, as well as to look at which leagues had teams under close consideration for an at-large bid. I’ll spare you all the calculations, and you can feel free to argue with them, but I established three tiers for the Division I conferences based on recent history:

  • Near-Lock Multi-Bid Leagues (Tier 1)
    • American, Atlantic 10, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, Pacific 12, SEC
  • Potential Multi-Bid Leagues (Tier 2)
    • Conference USA, Ivy League, Mid-American, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, Southern, West Coast
  • Near-Lock One-Bid Leagues (Tier 3)
    • America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Horizon, MAAC, MEAC, Northeast, Patriot, Southland, Summit, Sun Belt, SWAC, WAC

By splitting the leagues up in such a way, bids can be evenly spread across the tiers:

  • Tier 1: five (5) bids per league x 8 leagues = 40 bids
  • Tier 2: three (3) bids per league x 8 leagues = 24 bids
  • Tier 3: two (2) bids per league x 16 leagues = 32 bids

Of course, while most of us may recognize a reality in which the Big Ten and the A-10 would likely not receive the same number of bids in a normal year, this is not a normal year. By divvying up bids from the start, the NCAA could save itself a big headache down the line in trying to split hairs between schools. They could also allow conferences to determine how their bids are chosen.

Don’t want to have a conference tournament at all? Fine, don’t! Want to choose your participants based strictly on order of finish in league play instead? Go for it! Want to use a conference tournament to determine your automatic bid and the league standings to determine the at-large representatives? You do you!

There are also questions of where to play the games, but I will save that discussion for another time, though. This is all hypothetical, after all, and there are people much better equipped to answer those questions. In fact, our own Jeremy Mauss touched on this topic earlier this week.

Instead, what I will break down is how the NCAA could actually hold this 96-team tournament in a mostly-travel-friendly way that takes the guesswork out of their lives in the event the non-conference season is canceled. Things look a little messy at first glance, but it could be an elegant solution if the NCAA decided to temporarily expand its tournament field.

Here are some important things to note:

  • The hypothetical tournament field would consist of 96 teams, with 32 conference champions receiving an automatic bid into the Round of 64. The remaining 64 bids would be allotted in a predetermined manner and seeded into a qualifying round in their respective bracket.
  • The 32 conferences would be evenly split into one the four regional brackets based on geographical footprint and the tiers noted above. Each bracket would include two Tier 1 leagues, two Tier 2 leagues, and four Tier 3 leagues, resulting in a total of 24 bids being allotted to each region. The four regional brackets would be structured as follows:
    • North: Big Ten, A-10, MVC, MAC, Horizon, Patriot, MAAC, NEC
    • East: ACC, Big East, Ivy, OVC, CAA, ASUN, AEC, MEAC
    • West: Pac-12, AAC, WCC, MWC, WAC, Big West, Summit, Big Sky
    • South: Big XII, SEC, SOCON, CUSA, Sun Belt, Southland, Big South, SWAC
  • The schedule might cause some complications of course, but if the brackets are split up into four separate sites each having the ability to play two games at overlapping times, that would facilitate things. Assuming a March 25 start date, here’s a sample timeline for the tournament, with built-in recovery periods:
    • Qualifying Round: Thurs., March 25 and Fri., March 26
    • First Round: Sat., March 27 and Sun. March 28
    • 10-day recovery period: Mon., March 29 through Wed., April 7
    • Regional Quarterfinals (same sites): Thurs., April 8 and Fri., April 9
    • Regional Semifinals: Sat., April 10
    • Regional Finals: Sun., April 11
    • 12-Day recovery period: Mon., April 12 through Fri., April 23
    • National Semifinals (new Final Four site): Sat., April 24
    • National Championship: Mon., April 26

Sure, it’s more April Madness than traditionalists might prefer, but it gets the job done in just about a month’s time, and provides some flexibility to accelerate or slow the schedule as needed.

Next is a glimpse at how each bracket would look, including how the conferences would be divided up and seeded into the tournament field.

(NOTE: To provide some extra context, I’ve included a mock-up of what each bracket would look like using results from the 2019-20 season. For the leagues that finished their conference tournaments, including the Mountain West, tournament champions were awarded the automatic bid. For all other leagues, bids were determined by conference tournament seeding, ignoring any results from canceled tournaments.)


  • Qualifying Round
    • Missouri Valley #2 vs. Mid-American #3
    • Atlantic 10 #4 vs. Big Ten #5
    • Atlantic 10 #2 vs. MAAC #2
    • Big Ten #3 vs. Patriot #2
    • Mid-American #2 vs. Missouri Valley #3
    • Big Ten #4 vs. Atlantic 10 #5
    • Big Ten #2 vs. NEC #2
    • Atlantic 10 #3 vs. Horizon #2
  • First Round
    • Big Ten Champion vs. NEC Champion
    • MVC #2/MAC #3 winner vs. A10 #4/B1G #5 winner
    • A10 #2/MAAC #2 winner vs. B1G #3/Patriot #2 winner
    • Mid-American Champion vs. Horizon Champion
    • Atlantic 10 Champion vs. MAAC Champion
    • MAC #2/MVC #3 winner vs. B1G #4/A10 #5 winner
    • B1G #2/NEC #2 winner vs. A10 #3/Horizon #2 winner
    • Missouri Valley Champion vs. Patriot Champion

For context, here’s how this bracket would look using 2019-20 results as earlier noted:



  • Qualifying Round
    • Ivy #2 vs. OVC #3
    • Big East #4 vs. ACC #5
    • Big East #2 vs. America East #2
    • ACC #3 vs. ASUN #2
    • OVC #2 vs. Ivy #3
    • ACC #4 vs. Big East #5
    • ACC #2 vs. MEAC #2
    • Big East #3 vs. CAA #2
  • First Round
    • ACC Champion vs. MEAC Champion
    • Ivy #2/OVC #3 winner vs. BE #4/ACC #5 winner
    • BE #2/AEC #2 winner vs. ACC #3/ ASUN #2 winner
    • OVC Champion vs. CAA Champion
    • Big East Champion vs. America East Champion
    • OVC #2/Ivy #3 winner vs. ACC #4/BE #5 winner
    • ACC #2/MEAC #2 winner vs. Big East #3/CAA #2 winner
    • Ivy Champion vs. ASUN Champion

For context, here’s how this bracket would look using 2019-20 results as earlier noted:



  • Qualifying Round
    • WCC #2 vs. Mountain West #3
    • American #4 vs. Pac-12 #5
    • American #2 vs. Summit #2
    • Pac-12 #3 vs. Big West #2
    • Mountain West #2 vs. WCC #3
    • Pac-12 #4 vs. American #5
    • Pac-12 #2 vs. Big Sky #2
    • American #3 vs. WAC #2
  • First Round
    • Pac-12 Champion vs. Big Sky Champion
    • WCC #2/MWC #3 winner vs. AAC #4/P12 #5 winner
    • AAC #2/Summit #2 winner vs. P12 #3/BW #2 winner
    • Mountain West Champion vs. WAC Champion
    • American Champion vs. Summit Champion
    • MWC #2/WCC #3 winner vs. P12 #4/AAC #5 winner
    • P12 #2/Big Sky #2 winner vs. AAC #3/WAC #2 winner
    • WCC Champion vs. Big West Champion

For context, here’s how this bracket would look using 2019-20 results as earlier noted:



  • Qualifying Round
    • SOCON #2 vs. C-USA #3
    • SEC #4 vs. Big XII #5
    • SEC #2 vs. Big South #2
    • Big XII #3 vs. Southland #2
    • C-USA #2 vs. SOCON #3
    • Big XII #4 vs. SEC #5
    • Big XII #2 vs. SWAC #2
    • SEC #3 vs. Sun Belt #2
  • First Round
    • Big XII Champion vs. SWAC Champion
    • SOCON #2/CUSA #3 winner vs. SEC #4/B12 #5 winner
    • SEC #2/Big South #2 winner vs. B12 #3/SL #2 winner
    • Conference USA Champion vs. Sun Belt Champion
    • SEC Champion vs. Big South Champion
    • CUSA #2/SOCON #3 winner vs. B12 #4/SEC #5 winner
    • B12 #2/SWAC #2 winner vs. SEC #3/SB #2 winner
    • SOCON Champion vs. Southland Champion

For context, here’s how this bracket would look using 2019-20 results as earlier noted:


Well, there you have it. Have thoughts on the brackets? Suggestions for how it could be improved? Just want to complain? Crack your knuckles and head over Twitter to continue the conversation with @mwcwire.

Andrew is a current USBWA member, covering college basketball for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a college basketball analytics system, and provides bracketology predictions throughout the season.


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