As we all celebrate March Madness and fill out our brackets with hopes of picking the bracket busting upsets and winning cool office "points," I decided to take a moment and imagine what the first round of the Big Dance might look like if all of the bids were "At Large" or selected by committee. This would be similar to the format in college football, where Division 1 schools are divided into major and mid-major formats. By eliminating the automatic bids, we can get better teams into the lower seeds without play-in games, and without the drudgery of most first round games.
I know, you want to poo poo me because everyone wants to see the little guy in the dance with a chance to win. And considering the past decade of great stories, who am I to argue with you? I would argue that the current format is outdated. It was created with automatic bids for all Division 1 tournament champions to make sure that deserving small schools got an opportunity to dance. The result has been tremendous. Small schools have taken the tourney by storm, from Gonzaga to George Mason to Butler. It's been great. But today, I would suggest that with all of the media attention, and the now prevalent awareness that mid-majors can be very good, we don't need the automatic qualifiers any longer.
For evidence, we need not look any further than this year's bracket. Teams like Belmont, Bucknell, Gonzaga, New mexico, UNLV and on and on all have higher seeds than there large conference brethren. These teams would have been considered even without automatic bids. But teams like Middle Tennessee State, St Mary's, LaSalle, and Boise St, are forced fight for an 11 or 12 seed when most considered them good enough to be an at large team.
For just a moment, let's look at what the tournaments lowest seeds might look like without automatic bids. My rules were that if a school was playing for an 11 or 12 seed (BSU, MTSU, SMU, LU) then they were to be seeded in those slots around the brackets. That would likely bump some major teams lower in the bracket where they really belonged in the first place. I attempted to keep regional games as much as possible and avoid 1st or second round conference match-ups.
As you can see, there is no shortage of “little guys” playing in the tournament. This doesn't even account for the Creighton’s or Wichita State’s of the higher seeds. But even better? We get to see the teams that most of America felt were in the top 64 teams in the country.
Who wouldn’t rather see a struggling Kentucky team play Marquette rather than Davidson, or Iowa playing Louisville? A Tournament of Champions should pit the best against the best. I want to see top seeds challenged from the opening tip! I want to see if a team can struggle and still make it through. College basketball is the only sport that allows teams with zero chance of winning a game (hello all you 16 seeds) to play in tournament to decide an overall champion.
Alas, this is just a fantasy. Maybe one day we’ll get to see the real best 64 teams play head to head and fight it out for the title. Until then, try not to fall asleep during 80% of the first two rounds.