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Should the college baseball postseason expand?

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Last week, Friend of the Newsletter Matt Norlander of CBS shared an interesting proposal being discussed as part of the NCAA Transformation Committee's efforts.

Via his story:

In recent weeks, the committee has been informally tossing out apotentialphilosophical change to how some NCAA postseason tournaments could be configured, sources told CBS Sports. In Chicago last week, committee co-chairs Julie Cromer (Ohio athletic director) and Greg Sankey (SEC commissioner) put forth to the other 31 commissioners representing the Conference Commissioners Association -- in person and for the first time -- one tangible rule change still in a rudimentary stage.

The committee is putting an idea on the table that all Division I sports could allow as much as 25% of a sport's teams to be able to qualify for said sport's NCAA bracket. In layman's terms -- and at its extreme -- this would mean college basketball's 363-school population could one day, theoretically, allow for as many as 90 teams in March Madness.

Last month, I wrote that there was some chatter among ADs that the NCAA Men's Tournament could potentially change, perhaps in significant ways. Since I've published that, I've seen reports pushing back on the idea of expanding March Madness to 84+ teams, or potentially excluding low-majors. But the proposal Norlander mentions, which again is a proposal, could be one legislative tool used to expand the basketball tournaments beyond 68.

But college basketball isn't the only sport to host a sprawling postseason event, and the proposal being discussed could allow multiple sports to expand.

So I asked around. What about college baseball?

Right now, 301 teams compete in D-I college baseball, with 64 of those advancing to the tournament.

Math was never my strong suit, but that would make 21% of the D-I teams eligible. If legislative was changed to allow up to 25%, the college baseball tournament could potentially expand to as many as 75 teams, and potentially more, if other schools start sponsoring D-I baseball.

Should the field expand?

"When you talk to administrators, commissioners, etc...and ask them what they think is the most important part of college sports, they typically talk about the student-athlete experience," Wofford head baseball coach Todd Interdonato told me via phone. "When you sit down and you talk with those athletes about their experience, about the things they love and remember the most, what do they talk about? Postseason experiences."

Of course, Wofford was right on the cusp of making the 64-team field in 2022 and in 2021. "But take our experience out for a second. We're talking about creating more chances for athletes have a positive, memorable experience."

"I would support an expanded field." While there are a variety of potential models, Interdonato floated the idea of potentially making the baseball postseason bracket more closely mirror the men's basketball bracket, with play-in games leading into the full field of 64.

Administrators don't outright disagree...but they have questions

With so many other potential changes in college athletics, not everybody has had a chance to really wrap their head around what expanded tournament fields might mean in different sports. One P5 commissioner told me, for example, that while he favors increased championship access in principle, he simply hasn't had the chance to talk about it with his institutions yet.

Ryan Ivey, the athletic director at Stephen F. Austin, also told me that he "understands and appreciates the desire and reasoning behind expanding brackets," but also expressed some cautions.

"For baseball specifically, I think the only way that expanding the tournament works is if the season is shortened. I'm not sure it's a good idea to play 56 reg season games, plus another potential of 20-25 additional games in the postseason." Like Interdonato, Ivey also told me that how the teams are selected {i.e, via RPI}, and bracketed, can be just as important as how many teams are slotted into the bracket.

Another mid-major conference commissioner echoed that concern, telling me that "I'm not opposed to additional expansion, but the how is very important, because we want to make sure expansion is about improving championship access."

Patriot League commissioner Jen Heppel also told me that there are a variety of factors administrators have to consider for each sport when deciding if the bracket size should be adjusted.

"Are we doing the right thing by higher-sponsored sports like baseball, softball or soccer?  Is the bracket the right size?  Is the format the best it can be?  Are we seeding in the best manner?  Travel?  Time away from campus? So, in my mind, it is not just the question of bracket expansion, it’s about overall bracket management and creating the best possible experience for the entirety of Div. I."

Heppel also pointed out that how teams are seeded and bracketed may need to vary from sport to sport, but should also be closely examined.

"Seeding – the number of teams within the bracket that are seeded – is an incredibly important aspect of championship operations that can often be overlooked.

We are used to basketball where we see a seed next to each participant.  This not only impacts the competitive experience, but I could argue is part of fan experience…the endless debate about where a team is seeded and whether or not an upset is truly an upset.  Is your team an underdog or not?  That’s fun."

But other sports, like soccer, do not seed the entire field the same way. Is the current regional system the best possible system for college baseball? Maybe, maybe not.

Baseball presents a few other specific wrinkles to consider

For one, how would tournament expansion impact the calendar? The postseason already extends into late June, well after the academic term has ended for most colleges. Many college baseball players also play summer baseball. If the college season was extended another week or so, could that jeopardize other baseball opportunities for athletes? Would, like Ivey suggested, the regular season need to be trimmed a bit? What would it mean for ESPN or future media rights contracts?

The how the teams are selected may be especially important for college baseball. In basketball, a team on the proverbial tournament bubble may get hot and make the Sweet 16, but it's unusual that a squad that barely makes the field to meaningfully compete for a national title. The last team in last year's baseball tournament, Ole Miss, won the dang thing. Fresno State barely made the tournament field in 2008, then won the whole tournament. With the right pitching, a three or a four seed can absolutely make a Super Regional, and perhaps more.

I don't expect any immediate changes. After all the 25% rule isn't even an actual rule yet, and many administrators told me they simply want more time to think about various postseason formats before taking a position.

But it's worth monitoring. If the men's and women's basketball tournaments are up for evaluation, it shouldn't be a surprise that other tournaments, from soccer to baseball to volleyball, could get a second look as well.

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