What NCAA Tournament Expansion Could Mean For Baseball

The NCAA Division I Transformation Committee is continuing its work of reforming the structure of Division I college sports, a process that could reshape scholarship limits, requirements to be a Division I institution and more. Among the changes reportedly being discussed is an expansion of the NCAA Tournament.

According to reporting last week from CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, the Transformation Committee recently discussed a potential rule change that would allow all Division I sports to allow as much as 25% of teams that sponsor that sport into their NCAA Tournament. In baseball, where there are 305 schools that sponsor the sport, that would mean an NCAA Tournament of up to 76 teams. Currently, 64 teams qualify for the postseason.

Unlike most rule changes that are spurred by outside forces, like the changes to allow athletes to profit from their Name, Image and Likeness rights or allowing players a one-time exemption to transfer and be immediately eligible, or brought on by sports like basketball or football that garner more attention from administrators, the impetus for this change is reportedly baseball. An anonymous source told CBS Sports that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who is also co-chair of the Transformation Committee, was “frustrated with how baseball went this past year.” Notably, this year, Mississippi was one of the last four teams to make the Field of 64 and went on to win the national championship.

Sankey’s desire to expand the baseball tournament makes sense. The SEC is annually the best conference and routinely produces multiple teams in the College World Series field. But it has never received more than 10 tournament bids (a record it shares with the ACC) and with Oklahoma and Texas set to join the conference in a couple years, competition within the SEC is only going to get steeper. It is not inconceivable that it will annually have 13 or 14 teams in the mix for regionals. But would the selection committee really allow one conference to eat up more than a third of the available at-large bids? An expanded NCAA Tournament would likely have more room for more SEC teams.

But what about the rest of the sport? Would an expanded NCAA Tournament be good for baseball and how would a 76-team bracket be formatted?

Tournament expansion has not been top-of-mind for baseball coaches in recent years. In 2020, I asked 90 Division I coaches for their No. 1 complaint about the NCAA Tournament. The leading answer was that they had no complaint, though it accounted for just 17 votes (18.9%). Better mid-major representation (nine votes) and seeding the whole field (seven votes) both received more support than expansion (six votes).

Expansion might lead to more mid-major teams getting in the NCAA Tournament on aggregate—Wofford in 2022 and Ball State in 2021 were both listed among the first four teams out of the field and would certainly have made any expanded format—and thus answer two of the leading complaints at once. But it would likely benefit major conference programs the most. In 2022, eight of the 12 highest ranked teams by RPI on Selection Monday that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament were from Power Five conferences. Even if the committee didn’t hold strictly to RPI—and it didn’t in its actual Field of 64 selections—it’s unlikely that even half the additional bids would have gone to teams outside the Power Five.

So, while a format that allows for Grand Canyon (41-19, 25-5, 50 RPI), North Carolina State (36-21, 14-15, 33 RPI), Ole Miss (32-22, 14-16, 39 RPI) and Wofford (42-16-1, 16-4-1, 35 RPI) to all comfortably make the NCAA Tournament would be welcomed, it is important to understand who serves to benefit from expansion.

The second and perhaps more important question is how a 76-team field would be formatted. There’s no easy bracket for a 76-team field. Eighty teams are necessary to create 16 five-team regionals, which themselves are unwieldy. So, any expansion under the reported proposal would require a play-in round, like the basketball tournaments employ.

Mathematically, the easiest way would be for 12 play-in games, some of which would likely involve the worst automatic bids and some involve the last teams in the field as at-large teams, as is the case in basketball. For hoops, those games are all played at one site over two days. The baseball tournament format doesn’t allow for that kind of arrangement, however. To allow for bad weather contingencies and still get every regional to start on Friday, those games would all have to be played on Wednesday, likely at the site of the regional the game would feed into. Using this year as an example, that might have resulted in Grand Canyon and Texas-San Antonio traveling to Stillwater, Okla., to play Wednesday for the right to take on No. 2 seed Arkansas on Friday, or Binghamton and Coppin State traveling to Knoxville with No. 1 seed Tennessee awaiting the winner.

While college baseball teams play midweek games all season and in theory have the pitching staffs to do so in the postseason as well, arm care would likely become an issue with play-in games. Teams that took part in that round could play as many as six games in six days. Coaches are already more likely to bring back pitchers on short rest during regionals, a practice that brings plenty of criticism on college baseball’s spotlight weekends. Presented with that kind of schedule and faced with the prospect of multiple elimination days in a weekend, pitching too much and on short rest might become even more common.

To counteract some of the ill effects of a larger tournament field, perhaps an expanded postseason could be combined with a format change from 16 four-team regionals to 32 best-of-three series. That would limit teams to a maximum of four games in five days and open the possibility of spreading the play-in games over Wednesday and Thursday if the best-of-three series could have staggered starts between Friday and Saturday, like super regional weekend. A 32-host format is not without its own challenges, but in my 2020 survey, it received solid support from head coaches, outpolling the 16-host regional model, 58% to 42%.

Thirty-two hosts would allow for better geographic distribution, which would help the quick turnaround necessary for play-in games. Getting teams to the West Coast or to more isolated college towns on short notice would create new logistical challenges, which might be eased if there were more hosting options.

The proposed rule does not require sports to expand their tournaments to 25% of all Division I teams, it just would allow for it. Baseball could opt for a smaller expansion, perhaps just to 68 teams to match basketball. That would mean just four play-in games, limiting the effects of the extra game and potentially making for an intense, winner-take-all day that would drum up more excitement for regional weekend.

As with every proposed NCAA rules change, there’s a long way to go from proposal to reality. An expanded NCAA Tournament has some real advantages for baseball, particularly as it tries to expand interest in the game. But expansion comes with challenges of its own and evaluating the many different ways it could impact the sport would be critical—if baseball is given the chance to do so.

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