Opinion: Proposed all-in NCAA basketball tournament surprisingly makes sense

Before you dismiss the idea for an NCAA basketball tournament with all 340-something eligible teams next spring, ask yourself this: Why not? 

The idea, at first blush, sounds crazy. The immediate social media reaction was not kind when Stadium first reported Wednesday that the ACC was going to propose it to the NCAA Division I board as a one-time event for this coming season. 

But as we’ve all painfully experienced over the past six months, nothing is normal in the COVID-19 era. If you want to pull off something great, you have to open your mind and re-imagine the possibilities of what sports can be. After being forced to cancel the tournament earlier this year, what’s the harm in going a little crazy — and probably a bit overboard — to make up for it? 

Sure, the logistics of accommodating that many teams — remember, such a plan would have to account for an equal sized women’s event, too — would probably be difficult. For the smaller conferences, which already hold single-elimination tournaments just to get automatic bids, throwing everyone in the field would kill the drama of teams earning their ticket to the NCAAs. For the power conferences, the idea of slicing the revenue pie into more pieces might not be that appealing. 

An all-in NCAA tournament next year would help to a small degree to make up for the 2020 tournament that was canceled because of the pandemic.

Those are all valid reasons to be skeptical that the NCAA will go for it. On the other hand, the fact that this idea comes from the ACC — and is specifically being pushed by Hall of Fame coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim — lends it a lot of credibility.

According to one person who was on a call the league held Wednesday, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the group, support for the idea was unanimous from commissioner John Swofford to the athletics directors to the coaches.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The rest of the NCAA may dismiss it out of hand. 

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But there are a couple legitimate theories behind it. One is rooted in the idea that this college basketball season is going to be non-traditional at best and a complete mess at worst. Because of difficulties with COVID-19, with travel and with non-conference scheduling, teams in various leagues could end up playing significantly different numbers of games, which would make choosing a normal 68-team field really difficult and unfair.

It would also, to a certain extent, be a nice gesture for teams in mid- and low-major conferences who would have been in the 2020 tournament but didn’t get a chance to play. You can’t go back and fix what happened this past March, but it would at least serve as something of a mulligan for the players and coaches who are still on those teams. 

Third, and perhaps most important, it would incentivize many of the smaller schools who are facing a financial crunch to actually play the season. Under the current circumstances in Division I, where teams at the lower end desperately need non-conference games against major conference opponents to fund their programs, that’s no guarantee. There is some concern that dozens of schools could simply opt out of the season — and may have trouble returning.

Naturally, a lot of college basketball traditionalists think this is an awful idea. But we’re talking about one season here. It’s an experiment in usual times. And to go from a 68-team bracket to somewhere around 340 would only add two extra rounds for the teams that have a chance to go deep. Is there really something sacred about the college basketball regular season that would be ruined by something this weird and ambitious? 

Sure, it would be a basketball overload. Many of the early games would be completely awful mismatches. But a lot of them would be among teams of similar ability, and because it’s the NCAA tournament, a bunch of people would watch. That’s kind of the trick here. Nobody is going to watch Indiana State-Niagara under normal circumstances. But slap an NCAA sticker on the floor and put it on a bracket and you’ve got instant national interest. 

Nobody involved in this plan is under the illusion that it’s a financial make-good from missing the tournament this past year. It’s unclear how the TV part would even work or how much money the networks would invest in broadcasting it in the first place. 

But this is the rare proposal within college sports where it could be a financial plus to some degree and also good for the players, giving them an opportunity to say they competed in an NCAA tournament like none other. 

In these crazy times, what’s the harm in giving it a try? 

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