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Sankey Wants to Take a ‘Fresh Look’ at March Madness

The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, one of the most widely watched, has proposed expanding their popular tournament format.

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The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference is considering making the field larger than the current 68 teams.

Probably the most powerful person in college athletics, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, said Thursday that he wants to take “a fresh look” at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This could mean expanding the tournament from its current 68-team field.

He’s “not ready to make headlines there yet,” Sankey warns. But he is also willing to have a conversation about expanding the Big Dance to include more teams, including the champions of smaller conferences.

Mississippi, a member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), was the last team selected out of sixty-four to play in the 2022 College World Series and went on to win the championship.

Asking, “Is our current approach supporting national championship competition if the last team in can win the national championship and they’re in the 30s or 40s from an RPI or [NCAA NET] standpoint?” That’s what Sankey wants to know. I see nothing but good coming from that discussion. That doesn’t rule anybody out. This raises the question, “How do we include people in these annual national celebrations that lead to a national champion?”

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Although Sankey was discussing the men’s tournament, it is possible that the discussion of an expanded bracket would also apply to the women’s tournament in light of the NCAA’s recent emphasis on providing an equal tournament experience for both the men and the women.

The underdogs who so often give the NCAA tournament its best moments and unique flavor are increasingly worried about being left out of March Madness because their conferences send only their tournament winners to the tournament. Part of that stems from remarks attributed to Sankey made to the Division I Council earlier this summer.

Sankey emphasizes that he only predicted a possible shift, not an actual one. Nonetheless, some lower and middle division schools fear that their automatic bids will be given to more teams from the wealthy multi-bid leagues.

While visiting a TV station in Fort Myers, Florida Gulf Coast University president Michael Martin predicted that a smaller number of schools would have increasingly more influence over March Madness. We will no longer benefit from the A-current Sun’s automatic qualifiers.

However, Sankey doesn’t mention the possibility of eliminating automatic bids. He is well aware of the potential for massive backlash if he attempts to alter one of the most widely used formulas in collegiate athletics. Instead, he emphasizes the caliber of the squads that either miss the cut or are eliminated.

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Sankey argues that Texas A&M, a member of the Southeastern Conference, should have been a tournament participant last year. People were divided. They weren’t one of the best teams in the country early in the season, but by the end of the year, they were among the best. As you can tell, I have preferences. But Dayton was among the first four to leave.

Take a look at what the 11-seeds UCLA (2021), Virginia Commonwealth (2011), and Syracuse (2018) have accomplished. There were three teams from Dayton’s [First Four] that advanced to the national championship game. It’s meant to expand our horizons.”

Sankey mixed up his two visits to Syracuse. It was a 10-seed that did not play in Dayton but still made it to the Final Four in 2016. While participating in the 2018 First Four in Dayton, Syracuse was eliminated in the Sweet 16 round.

Sankey didn’t mention this, but having four separate First Fours, one in each region, is another way to expand. To put it another way, if that happens, there will be 80 bids instead of 68.

But the logistical challenges for the NCAA would quadruple. It is not simple to get eight teams to Dayton in time for the first round, and then to distribute the winners to different sites across the country so that they have a chance to win.

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However, Sankey seems open to investigating various possibilities for expanding Big Dance.

Take a step back and look at everything with new eyes, he advises. Everyone gathers in the corner and says, “I have to hang on to what’s mine” as the group thinks collectively. But how can we all help make it better?

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