Abolish the NIT, Expand the NCAA

In 1971, the USC Trojans finished 24-2, with both losses at the mighty hands of John Wooden's 29-1 UCLA Bruins.

And since there was no such thing as conference tournaments in those days — and no at-large bids to the NCAA tournament either — the Trojans went home for the summer as also-rans, because the NIT had already announced its schedule before USC lost 73-62 at the Pauley Pavilion to decide the then Pac-8 conference title.

It was in response to grossly unfair scenarios like this (South Carolina did not make the NCAA grade in 1970, nor did Maryland in 1974) that the NCAA added at-large teams to the tournament field in 1975, and doubling its size from 16 teams to 32.

The number of qualifiers was further increased to 40 teams in 1979, to 48 the following year, and to 64 in 1985. In 2001, when the champion of the Mountain West Conference was granted an automatic bid, the field increased to 65 (with the two lowest overall seeds meeting in a play-in game to kick off the tourney), then to 68 with the addition of three more play-in games in 2011 (the original play-in game plus the three new ones cleverly marketed as the "First Four").

But even with 68 teams, the gap in talent between the weakest of the small-college conference champions that do get in and the strongest of the teams that don't remains far too great, so something clearly needs to be done about it.

Worse yet, the NCAA has owned the NIT — lock, stock, and two smoking barrels — since 2005. Did someone say "antitrust violation"?

If the NCAA and the NIT were forced to merge (where have you gone, Judge Doty? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you), there could be a single, 96-team tournament, with all of the increase consisting of teams that should be in the NCAAs now, but aren't.

And to make the selection process totally objective and not subjective, it can be done as follows:

1. Take the 32 teams receiving automatic bids (32 is one-third of 96 — how convenient!), and use the NET to rank them.

2. Take the 64 teams receiving at-large bids (the remaining two-thirds of the qualifying field) and use the NET to rank them.

3. Use the results of 1 and 2 above to rank the entire field — with the bottom four teams receiving 24 seeds, the next four higher-ranked teams 23 seeds, and so on up the line, with the top eight seeds in each region drawing first-round byes into the round of 64. As among teams with the same seeding, geography is made to take precedence over the NET rankings — so that UCLA doesn't end up in the East Region, St. John's in the West Region, etc.

And so what if this makes March Madness extend even further into April than it already does? We've gotten used to the NBA in June, the NFL in February, and even Major League Baseball in November.

So why not?

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