By now, we've all heard the talk about a potential expansion of March Madness to include 96 teams. Nearly everyone seems to be against it, including John Calipari and Dick Vitale,and the reasons are numerous. I agree on just about every point. The tournament is great where it is at 64/5 teams, and if anything, they should nix the play-in game.
From a competitive standpoint though, what would such an expanded tournament mean?
When it comes to the championship itself, it would mean absolutely nothing. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only two teams below a 4 seed have ever won the tournament: '85 Villanova as an 8 seed and '88 Kansas as a 6 seed. Both of them won during the first four years when coverage of the sport wasn't as good as it is now and the committee was still getting used to the format. Since then, a single 4 seed has won it all ('97 Arizona), and no one below that has taken home the trophy.
If you're counting along at home, that means only three teams seeded below a 3 seed have won the thing. Letting in a bunch more teams that are below the grade of a 12 seed would not introduce any serious candidates at winning it all. If you're worried about a diluted champion, there's no real need to fret. Especially since no one below an 8 seed has ever won it and the new format almost certainly touches nothing of the top 8 seeds.
Adding 31 to 65 gives us 32 more teams than what a 64-team bracket can hold. The likely track then would be that seeds 1 through 8 get first round byes while the other 64 teams all do play-in games of their own for seeds 9 through 16. I don't exactly know how to make that work right other than to make special seedings for this first round and then re-seed them for the 64 team field after.
I mean, if every play-in game features closely matched teams, then half of the decent teams playing for 9 and 10 seeds would be out while the dreck playing for 15 and 16 seeds gets in. If they hold firm the seedings, then a hypothetical 16-grade team upsetting a 9-grade team means we could have a 17-15 team from a crappy conference sitting on a 9 seed.
Now in theory, this could make the tournament better at the 64-team stage if things go how I assume they would. After all, the mediocre teams could knock the really bad ones out in that first round so that the overall quality of the 9 through 16 seeds would be better. The problem is that the chances of those 9 through 16 seeds succeeding would be undermined by playing a game on Tuesday or Wednesday while the top half of the bracket rests. What, you didn't think they'd push everything back a week, did you?
If they really wanted to make the tournament better, they'd revoke the automatic bids for the worst conferences. They would need to set up some sort of criteria for getting an automatic bid like the BCS has, obviously, but that shouldn't be too hard. It'd cause those bad leagues to revolt, but realistically, there aren't 300+ teams on the same high level. Michigan State and Kennesaw State shouldn't be in the same division.
Of course, that will never happen because the NCAA actually runs the tournament and everyone has an equal say as to what happens. Those tiny conferences can band together and keep their automatic bids because there's no way for the big boys to stop them. That's one reason why it's fortuitous that the NCAA never got hands on with football. As big a mess as the BCS is, the Sun Belt can't force its way into getting into the big games every season.
So yeah, a 96 team field would probably improve the overall quality of the Round of 64. However less rest for the bottom half of the bracket would hurt that quality, and the chances of anyone winning the tournament from that half are extremely remote anyway.
The only thing the expanded field would do from a practical standpoint (beyond extra money and ratings) would be to provide up to 31 more coaches an excuse for not getting fired.