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Bigger dance? Conferences weighing NCAA Tournament fields of 72, 76

USA TODAY
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USA TODAY

Expansion plans for the NCAA Tournament were presented to Division I conference commissioners, who are also reviewing an option for the men’s and women’s annual March tournaments to remain 68-team events.

No expansion of the men’s and women’s tournament would be approved for March 2025, but could be enacted for the March 2026 tournament, according to a report from the Associated Press.

NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said after the three-day summit last summer the committee was “doing their due diligence looking at a few different models to make an informed decision that’s in the best interests of the championship, and that may very well include deciding against expansion.”

A year later, Gavitt was part of the presentation from the NCAA to commissioners following the 2023 recommendation of the NCAA board of directors to permit participation in championship events to up to 25 percent of eligible Division I programs.

“I would rather it stay the way it is,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said in March. “But I also have been in a lot of those committees where I think it’s important to shut up and listen to other people. So I’d love to sit in the room and listen to the why. That’s part of collaborating with everybody which head coaches have kind of been left out of those committees. I’d rather see the room change. … There’s no current head coaches sitting in those rooms. It doesn’t mean we’ve got to stir the drink or make the decision, just listen to it from our vantage point.”

The last time the men’s tournament expanded was before the 2011 championship, increasing from 65 to 68 teams. The men’s tournament field went from 64 to 65 teams in 2001. Different models include expansion to 72 or 76 teams.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham is the chair of the committee for 2024-25 after serving as vice chair to Southwestern Athletic Conference Commissioner Charles McClelland.

Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis said during the 2024 NCAA Tournament he would leave his opinion on the sideline and let Cunningham and others steer the direction of the tournament.

Other coaches were split on the idea of expanding the tournament in March, when discussions include a model for a 90-team field.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo appeared in his 26th consecutive tournament in March. But he said it’s hard not to empathize with the team that won its conference regular-season championship but was upset in the conference tournament and missed out on inclusion in the NCAA field because of the automatic bid process. The living example at the moment was Indiana State, which had a NET rating of 29 but was left out of the field based on what Izzo said was false perception.

“I feel for some teams that didn’t get in when you have those automatic bids,” Izzo said. “I’m not sure I understand why, but the conference tournament things, you can go and like Purdue go 17-3 and dominate the conference and then lose. It’s OK if it’s the second-place team, but I think that makes it hard, why some teams will get left out. I don’t know if something could be fixed there. But then the conference tournament wouldn’t be as — it’s all about what is best for the financial part of it, if we were to be very blunt and honest with you, more than it is the player and teams.”

Arkansas coach John Calipari said before his No. 3 Kentucky team was upset by No. 14 Oakland that the NCAA should leave a good thing alone.

“I hope it stays where it is. Don’t mess with something that’s great,” he said.

Among the considerations for conference commissioners will be payout structure and scheduling additional games. The women’s tournament field expanded from 64 to 68 teams in 2022 to match the “First Four” format with eight teams matched in play-in games. Those additional games have been held at a neutral site in Dayton, Ohio, for the men’s field and at campus locations for the women’s field.

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