The very notion seems quaint today, but the NCAA Tournament wasn't always college basketball's premier postseason destination. Female athletes in fact competed under an entirely separate organizational banner in the AIWA until the early eighties. This strange historical anomaly led to a split women's basketball national championship in 1982, when Rutgers defeated Texas in the AIWA Tournament, and Louisiana Tech felled Cheyney State for the inaugural NCAA crown. The AIWA soon went from authoritative to out of existence in little over a year.
A somewhat similar tale on the men's side is more well known. Decades ago, the National Invitation Tournament was comparable in prestige to the NCAA Tournament, before he latter gained a foothold and relegated the NIT to effectively consolation bracket status. After the NIT filed a 2005 antitrust lawsuit, the NCAA responded with $56.5 million settlement to purchase the NIT.
The new overlords quickly began tinkering. The NIT selection process now gives automatic bids to regular season conference champions that fail to play the NCAA Tournament proper. That only serves to further muck up a tournament whose limited appeal mainly stemmed from giving "name" teams in down years a showcase at Madison Square Garden. Now consolation tournament is worse than ever in terms of fan appeal. Since 2008 there's also been the College Basketball Invitational in order to practically guarantee that every non-Rutgers team will enjoy some form of postseason existence.
My proposed solution may not be an original one. The idea is pretty straightforward, although I can't recall anything similar off the top of my head. It's called the "Jailbreak" plan, drawing the analogy that playing in the NIT is a fate worse than imprisonment. I've been offhandedly toying with it for a while to try to generate something workable from the concept. Considering the rumored plans to expand the NCAA Tournament to up to 96 teams (for now, they'll stick with 68), this whole thing isn't necessarily as outlandish as it may appear on first glance. If watering down the Tournament is an inevitability, can't it at least be done in a moderately interesting way that rewards genuine accomplishment?
Here's how everything would go.
- Not only get rid of play-in games in the NCAA Tournament, but reduce the initial field to 60 teams. Owing to the specifics of this proposal, there won't be quite the impetus for a NCAA bid. The NCAA Tournament should then use the following bracket. Three regionals would be "normal", but one would have only twelve teams to start out with.
- Start the NIT after Selection Sunday, but several days before the NCAA Tournament proper begins. Compress the two week timetable slightly so that the NIT title game is completed before the NCAA's round of 16 is yet to commence.
- Do you see where this is going now? The idea is to turn the NIT into a grueling gauntlet, with a real reward: a bid into the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen. Any more of a reward would be excessive (clearly the NIT champion has some skill in any given season, but they don't on the merits deserve to be on the same level as a top NCAA team). Any less would be too much logistical trouble, and make any chances of survival completely improbable.
- That would be bad, because the idea here is to generate interest in the NIT as a contest with meaningful, captivating stakes, and establish its winners as underdogs with public support. Who wants to jump on the bandwagon of a team on its last legs, running on fumes?
- The NCAA Tournament would otherwise proceed under normal, established circumstances and procedures.
Of course, I'm open to any suggestions for improvements or tweaks, and definitely could have overlooked a critical flaw here. The overall concept in some form should have merit though.