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How Many Teams Should Make the NCAA Tournament?

NCAA HOCKEY: APR 13 Div I Men’s Championship Game - Massachusetts v Minnesota Duluth
Probably a reason for this many empty seats

The NCAA bureaucracy approved expanding the women’s D-1 hockey tournament from eight teams to 11 earlier this week. It’s a positive step forward for the women’s game to give more players the opportunity to compete for a national championship. But with this focus on tournament sizes, it’s fair to ask the question: What is the right number of teams that should be making the NCAA Tournament field?

The sole driver of the committee’s decision to move to 11 teams seemed to be bringing the women’s tournament into proportion with the men’s tournament. But anyone that has seen the annual pictures of empty regional venues for the most important games of the men’s season and the increasingly sweaty desperation by the NCAA to move Frozen Four ticket packages knows the men’s tournament isn’t exactly the paragon of success to aim for.

When looking at tournaments from a purely competitive standpoint, the gold standard remains the NCAA’s D-1 basketball tournaments. The reason it is far and away the country’s biggest, most popular sports tournament is because it hits perfectly on what I like to call the March Madness Sweet Spot. The tournament allows for surprising upsets in the earlier rounds, giving the tournament some air of unpredictability, but by the end, one of the very best teams in the country always wins. Looking at last year’s tournament as a perfect example, UCLA made for a nice story with their surprising run, but the championship was still played between Gonzaga and Baylor, the country’s top two teams. Cinderella stories like Loyola, George Mason or Florida Gulf Coast live on in NCAA lore, but outside of one outlier run by UConn in 2014, nobody from outside of the top eight of the 350+ men’s D-1 basketball teams has won a national title in a very long time. Even if you want to argue there are only ~100 major teams that are truly competitive, the champions are still coming from an extremely high percentile. It’s the perfect mix of surprise, without feeling entirely random and meaningless.

So how do the hockey tournaments fit into this paradigm? For the men, the answer is not well at all.

16 of the currently 60 men’s D-1 hockey programs, about 27%, make the NCAA tournament field. That ludicrously high percentage isn’t because it makes for the best tournament or because that many teams deserve it. The field is that size because some years ago, the NCAA realized they could find four C-list cities every year desperate enough to have anything booked at their venue that they’d pay a $150,000 advance(which after years of complaints of insane ticket prices being passed down to fans, the NCAA proudly decreased to only $100,000 a couple years ago) to host a four-team regional.

Does the tournament have upsets? It certainly has lower seeds winning games. But when those lower seeds are winning as consistently as they do, it’s hard for anything to really be considered an “upset”. There probably is not a lot that can be done about that, given the aesthetics of the men’s game; at least not while the rules committee is pre-occupied with overtime format instead of looking at the root causes of every game ending in a low-scoring tie.

But it’s the other half of the equation that is the real problem in men’s hockey. Because anyone can win any game, anyone can win the whole tournament. A team farting their way along to a near-.500 record over an entire 36-game season, getting embarrassed in two conference tournament games, sneaking into the tournament as the last at-large team in a bloated field and then going on to win a national title as the supposed best team in the country is tough to square. That’s happened twice in the past eight tournaments.

The fix to that from a competitive standpoint would be to shrink the field and only allow in teams that would have a legitimate claim at being the best in the country if they won the tournament. A smaller field would have other benefits as well as it would open up the potential for a return to home venues in the NCAA Tournament and opening the possibility of best-of-three series to eliminate some of the coin flip feel of the current tournament. The only real downside is that the NCAA might make less money. But that’s a discussion for another day. The bottom line is that 16 is too many teams in the field.

So seeing that the women’s tournament was increased to match the percentage of a way-too-big men’s tournament, my initial reaction was that 11 was probably too big for the women as well. But when you look at things a little closer, I don’t hate it.

Again, looking at the March Madness Sweet Spot, the women’s hockey tournament has never had an issue getting their best teams through to the championship. For the most part, the early rounds of the tournament can sometimes feel like a rote exercise while we wait to see if this is finally the year Hockey East breaks through for a title(Spoiler: It isn’t.)

The area that is lacking is the feel of unpredictability in the early rounds of the tournament where a surprise team can break through. I don’t know that a lot can be done about that as long as the gap between the top three-ish teams per year and the rest of the field is where it currently is. But expanding the field helps.

The way I look at it is that adding three teams means adding three more games to the tournament. Those three games are #8 vs. #9, #7 vs. #10, and #6 vs. #11. 8/9 and 7/10 should be really fun, close games that could go either way. 6/11 is interesting because the last team in the field is usually going to be a lowly-ranked autobid. That last autobid has a much better chance of pulling off an upset against #6 than they currently do of upsetting the #1 team in the country. It also increases the upset potential a little bit for the #1 team in the country because they’re now meeting a pretty good #8 or #9 team rather than the lowest-ranked team in the field.

So from that standpoint, I think the increase in teams is great for the tournament. You add a couple exciting games and edge the dial a tiny bit towards more major upsets. It’s win-win for the tournament.

Could they have gone further and made it a more-even 12 teams? I can see the argument for that. There is a point of diminishing returns when adding teams to the field. #5 vs. #12 becomes less likely to produce an upset, and if that’s the case, there’s no real point to adding that extra game. And it’s already a very large percentage of teams making the postseason. I’m not sure how much higher you’d want to go. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, once the women’s game adds a few more teams, the field moves to 12 in a few years.