SEC’s Sankey doesn’t envision P5-only NCAA Tournament, but ‘things continue to change’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — SEC commissioner Greg Sankey does not view himself as commander of the Death Star with his finger on the big red button, ready to annihilate the NCAA Tournament as we know it. Despite recent comments by Sankey to ESPN that sounded some alarms around college basketball, he does not envision a future in which the national championship tournament includes only teams from power conferences.

“No, I don’t. No, no. That’s an overread of the comment,” Sankey told The Athletic on Saturday during his league’s semifinals. The comment in question, to ESPN’s Pete Thamel, came after Sankey pointed out that UCLA made a run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2021 and Syracuse went from the play-in game in Dayton to the Sweet 16 in 2018, demonstrating the potential of power-conference teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive,” Sankey told Thamel. “We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers (from smaller leagues), and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of (conference) expansion.”

Next year, the SEC and Big 12 will both be 16-team leagues. The Big Ten and ACC will have 18 each.

“I take the example of Ole Miss baseball — last team in, won a national championship — and baseball is different; it’s actually less random than basketball, since you have to win series and it’s double-elimination,” Sankey said Saturday. “It’s simply an observation that we leave some highly competitive teams out that can justify their participation. That’s part of the review. That should be part of the conversation. Because again, we keep adding teams — nobody seems to want to deal with the volume of Division I teams increasing (there are now 362 D1 teams) — so we’re going to have to continue to adapt. I think that’s healthy conversation. I don’t make that decision, but I certainly can make observations.”

Sankey does have a significant voice in this process, though. He runs one of the two most powerful leagues in college athletics and he co-chaired the NCAA transformation committee that last January recommended NCAA Tournament expansion from its current 68 teams to a still-unspecified number.

If Sankey doesn’t want to eradicate mid-major participation altogether, his interest in a larger field certainly isn’t about wanting more of them included. In fact, some in the sport fear that whatever play-in games exist in the future will only be those smaller schools fighting among themselves for spots in the traditional 64-team format.

“We send 11 seeds to Dayton because that was an agreement to start,” Sankey told The Athletic. “But some of those 11 seeds have proven that they go a long way in the tournament. So we do have, I think, a healthy need for review. I understand access, I understand the special nature (of Cinderellas) and certainly respect that, but right now in college athletics, nothing is static.”

Asked if it is important to him to protect access to the NCAA Tournament for those mid-major automatic qualifiers, the underdogs who’ve made it one of the most widely loved sporting events in the world, Sankey said: “I think that’s part of the review. I don’t make a prediction. I’ve never thought dialogue was unhealthy. I think dialogue is healthy. So we’ll see what ideas come out, whenever they come out. I’m in no particular hurry.”

And what would Sankey say to the many people who believe the NCAA Tournament is perfect just as it is and are pleading for its leaders to leave the thing alone?

“The first time I made a comment, within two minutes, people said, ‘That’s the worst idea,’” he said. “Well, that’s actually not an intellectual exercise. I hope there’s some effort to think through things. You have to give credit to teams like Saint Peter’s a couple years ago, Florida Atlantic’s run. There are great stories and we certainly want to respect those great stories, but things continue to change. There’s nothing wrong with a review, and again, I think that’s the healthy kind of conversation that should take place. No time pressure, no expectation among teams. Should we be looking at how we’ve allocated teams for 30 years? Are there other things that should be considered? Sure. That doesn’t predict only this or not that. I think that’s all part of the conversation.”

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(Photo: Johnnie Izquierdo / Getty Images)

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