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ESPN's Joe Lunardi: NCAA Should Consider Expanding Tournament Field To 72

A picture of Joe Lunardi with a bracket graphic.


Joe Lunardi, ESPN's most famous "bracketologist," thinks that the NCAA should consider expanding the NCAA Tournament field, allowing four more teams in the mix.

The modern 64-team tournament began in 1985 after regularly expanding during the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 2001, the NCAA added a play in game for one of the 16-seeds, which lasted for a decade.

In 2011, the 68-team field debuted, adding an additional 16-seed play-in game, and two other at-large play-in games.

Now, Lunardi thinks things should expand again. He wrote a column arguing for a 72-team field.

Something is wrong when Illinois State can go 17-1 in a top-10 league and still, from recent selection committee experience, know that its NCAA chances aren't good. Or that Monmouth can beat UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown but miss the NCAA tournament because of a few bad bounces in a conference tournament.

It's a simple reality: Good teams from major conferences have margin for error; good teams from mid-major conferences do not. Modest expansion can correct this.

Lunardi sees the 12-seeds becoming the spot for the additional play-in games, involving some of the nation's best mid-major programs that were on the outside looking in for the 64-team field.

For argument's sake, let's say we expanded the field by four to 72 teams. The additional wild cards -- last season's could have been regular-season winners Illinois State, UT Arlington, Monmouth and Belmont -- would play the last four at-large selections in what would be true "Bracket Buster" contests, typically matching power conference schools against smaller conference schools in compelling fashion. Winners become the four No. 12 seeds in the main bracket.

This would definitely be more fair for teams, like Illinois State, that ran through the regular season and were upset in one-and-done conference tournament play. However, as with all things college athletics, the bigger conferences rule the roost, and it seems unlikely that they would vote for something that would exclusively benefit mid-major programs.

Still, Lunardi's idea isn't too crazy, and it would actually add some more symmetry to the field. I'm just not sure how much farther we want to take things. There is some value in exclusivity for the NCAA Tournament, and the 64-plus team format has turned the tournament into one of the calendar's greatest sporting events. If moved much farther past it, to a 96 or 128 team tournament as has occasionally been proposed, the NCAA could really risk watering things down.