By Budd Bailey

Gentlemen, start your madness.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets underway this way. We here in Buffalo are lucky enough to be involved in it again this season, as the KeyBank Center will host some first- and second-round games once again.

Yes, it’s nice to have big-name teams and Hall of Fame coaches come to town, but Buffalo really didn’t get that when the brackets were announced. However, we may have received something better: the potential for really good games.

The contests here will feature the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds for two regions. That means if form holds, we should have the classic even matchups of 4 vs. 5 on Saturday. But since those teams will be playing Nos. 13 and 12 respectively in the Thursday games, the opening games shouldn’t be blowouts. In fact, some of the nation’s experts believe that Vermont has a chance to make life miserable for Arkansas, and that New Mexico State is capable of playing Connecticut quite closely. We have four ranked teams coming in – Iowa and Providence are the others – so the competition should be good.

The tournament has become something of a national mania over the years, and there are a couple of reasons why. The first is that it seems like much of America is filling out bracket pools. Following the Supreme Court decision that formally legalized such things, even the NCAA is inviting fans to jump into the pool through its website.

The other cause is the charm of it all. This is a chance for the small schools to take on the big schools on a neutral court, with the chance to pull an upset. Let’s face it – the low- and mid-majors almost play a different sport than the big schools. The current system gives those small schools a couple of rewards. It gives them a share of the NCAA money, and it allows the season to have more relevance. Alumni like the idea of Hometown State reaching the tournament, no matter what might happen once it gets there.

It takes an odd set of circumstances for teams like Buffalo and St. Bonaventure – let alone Canisius and Niagara – to host one of the blue bloods of the sport on its own court. The economics for such games don’t add up for the power schools. But at least the NCAA tournament allows such games to be played on a more level playing field than the big universities’ arenas.

However, there has been some talk that the big conferences – SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12 – are starting to wonder if they really need the aggravation of having the small schools around. After all, they have dominated the football playoff system for much of its existence, with the occasional mid-sized interloper like Cincinnati crashing the party. The Power 5 schools could put on a good-sized tournament on their own. It might not be as charming, but it would provide more money for the big schools – who seem to have endless demand for more of it.

Just for fun, I’ve been wondering what a slightly modified format to the NCAA Tournament might look like. It would have to give a larger share of the proceeds to the big schools, and yet maintain some of that David vs. Goliath charm.

We’re going to have to ask the worst of the small school teams to make a sacrifice. So let’s kick the teams that are ranked 65 to 68 by the seeding committee out of the field. They already have to go to Dayton on short notice to take part in the “First Four” portion of the event, which has never been particularly fair. Two of the teams will lose, so they never get the experience of playing in a true tournament atmosphere. (The only big benefit is that NCAA teams are paid for the game, and this is a way for the winners to get a bigger check.) I don’t like doing dropping them, but it may be necessary.

How do we make it up to them? Well, money, of course. Those four teams still get a full share of the NCAA proceeds. That helps a little, but we have to do more for them. All right, we’ll put them in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). That’s a 32-team consolation prize, grouped into four groups of eight. Here’s the trick – we will seed them third in the four groups. That means they are guaranteed a home game – and they might get another if they win and one of the top two seeds above them loses. I would expect a school like Bryant University would be thrilled to host an NIT game, especially if a well-known opponent like Virginia shows up.

We’ll throw in one more touch. If one of the “Little Four” wins that first game at home, its conference is assured of a berth in the full NCAA field in the following season. That’s an extra incentive to play hard in the game.

There’s one last aspect of the plan that needs to be decided. Personally, a 64-team field always worked well for me. The three days between Selection Sunday and the start of the tournament was a great time to build up anticipation and excitement, and it let all of the participants take the spotlight during that time. But sadly, the number of playoff teams never seems to shrink; it only grows. There’s money involved. Therefore, 68 teams probably will remain.

So the first four games switch to the last eight at-large teams admitted to the field. In this case, we’d welcome Dayton, Oklahoma, SMU and Texas A&M to the tournament. They would go to Dayton, as would holdovers Indiana, Wyoming, Notre Dame and Rutgers. I’ll leave it to the committee to come up with the matchups.

I’m under no illusions about the chances of this being adopted by the NCAA. The big schools probably would want a bigger change than this if the system was going to be adapted.

But it is a time for dreams.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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