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What if college basketball had a 4-team playoff?

How many national titles would Kansas have in the last 40 years if they didn’t have to play six games to get there?

Kansas v Memphis Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Division 1 college football has received accolades (?) recently for expanding its “playoff” from two teams to four teams, even though every other level of NCAA football has at least 16 teams lining up in a postseason tournament. Seems silly, right?


Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is, and apparently the powers-that-be don’t want to make even more money with a larger field, which to me is even more silly, but more on this later.

Let’s look at the NCAA Tournament through the lens of college football, using our optical zoom feature to focus in on the Kansas Jayhawks. Yes, I know there are 350+ D1 basketball programs as opposed to 130+ D1 football programs, but we’re just going to pretend that doesn’t really matter.

The NCAA Tournament began seeding teams in 1979. Since 1979, the field has expanded from 40 teams to 64 teams in 1985 to 68 teams in 2011. In these last 40 tournaments, Kansas has earned 35 bids and won two national titles (1988, 2008).

But what if only four teams got invited to the playoff? How many more titles would KU have?

Of those 35 tournament appearances, Kansas has earned 14 one-seeds, second most behind North Carolina’s 16. Duke is third with 13, Kentucky fourth with 12, while Arizona and Virginia each have 6. If interested, you can find the full list at the bottom of this link.

Let’s take a look at the rundown of the years where Kansas had a #1 seed, and generate the playoffs based on how the national semifinals would have unfolded had it gone all chalk.

1986 – Kansas vs Duke, Kentucky vs St. John’s

1992 – Kansas vs Ohio State, Duke vs UCLA

1995 – Kansas vs Kentucky, Wake Forest vs UCLA

1997 – Kansas vs North Carolina, Minnesota vs Kentucky

1998 – Kansas vs Duke, Arizona vs North Carolina

2002 – Kansas vs Maryland, Duke vs Cincinnati

2007 – Kansas vs Florida, North Carolina vs Ohio State

2008 – Kansas vs North Carolina, UCLA vs Memphis

2010 – Kansas vs Syracuse, Kentucky vs Duke

2011 – Kansas vs Pittsburgh, Duke vs Ohio State

2013 – Kansas vs Indiana, Louisville vs Gonzaga

2016 – Kansas vs Oregon, North Carolina vs Virginia

2017 – Kansas vs North Carolina, Villanova vs Gonzaga

2018 – Kansas vs Villanova, Virginia vs Xavier

Don’t worry, dear readers, the other schools get picked off too. North Carolina fans probably don’t want to talk about Penn or Boston College. No doubt Kentucky remembers UAB. Duke – well ok, I’m sorry to report that Duke doesn’t have any super embarrassing losses as a one-seed. (Lehigh was a 2-15 matchup and Mercer was a 3-14.)

During the 14 years of The Streak, Kansas received a #1 seed 8 times. The Jayhawks also won the Big 12 Tournament in 7 of those 8 years. Out of KU’s 14 one-seeds, the ‘Hawks won the conference regular season every time plus the conference tournament 11 times. (The three conference tourney losses were 1995, 2002, and 2017.)

For perspective, out of UNC’s 16 one-seeds, the Tar Heels won both the regular season and the conference tournament just 5 times; Out of Duke’s 13, they won both 7 times; and for Kentucky’s 12, it’s 6 times. (Does this maybe say something about a lack of respect for either Kansas or the Big 12? Probably a question that needs to be revisited.)

Duke is the only one of these four schools to get a #1 seed without winning either its regular season or conference tournament, a feat they accomplished in 2015.

Regardless, in a hypothetical four-team basketball playoff, if you win at least a share of the Big 12, Big 10, ACC, or SEC, plus your conference championship game, you’ve got a great shot at a title. Which is why in football, the SEC in particular but also the Big 10 and Big 12 don’t want to see the playoff expanded. Oklahoma doesn’t want to put their title hopes on the line against Boise State in a second-round game. Ohio State doesn’t want any part of an undefeated MAC school in December. It makes sense. I get it. I don’t like it, but I understand it.

This illustrates why college football’s “big boys” (and their fans) - Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc. - don’t want to see that playoff expanded. This kind of format in basketball would benefit Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky more than anyone else.

There’s a reason why they call it March Madness. Simulations suggest December could be just as fun, but unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.

Most of the time, the Final Four features teams all seeded #4 or better. There are a few exceptions, of course – 1980, 2000, and 2011 come to mind. Even 2006 and 2014 were pretty crazy. But usually, the clock eventually strikes midnight on Cinderella as only four teams seeded #5 or worse have won a title: 2014 UConn (#7), 1988 Kansas (#6), 1985 Villanova (#8), and 1983 NC State (#6). Historically, 90% of the time a top-20 team has won the Tournament.

And since 1989, or the 30 most recent tournaments, that number is even more pronounced, with 2014 UConn being the only team seeded worse than #5 to win a title. That’s a 96.7% clip for top-20 teams.

However, only 24 out of 40 Tournament champions (60.0%) were one-seeds, meaning that 40% of the time, the winner was a team ranked outside of the top-4 when the seedings were announced.

In the interest of fairness, that percentage rises significantly if we once again take out the 1980s; in the last 30 years, 21 out of the 30 Tournament champions (70.0%) have been #1 seeds.

Still, dare I say it? It’s a #Crapshoot. Granted, #1 seeds have the odds in their favor, but it’s still a system that makes it difficult for even the best teams to play for a championship. In 40 years, all four #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four once, in 2008. There hasn’t been a single Final Four that has featured all four of college basketball’s “Blue Bloods” being discussed here today, and only four Final Fours featured some combination of three of our Blue Bloods - 1986, 1997, 1998, and 2010.

It should also be mentioned that the Blue Bloods have combined for 15 of these 40 titles, good for 37.5% (North Carolina 5, Duke 5, Kentucky 3, Kansas 2). Of those 15 champions, only two were NOT #1 seeds: Kentucky in 1998 (#2), and the already-mentioned Kansas in 1988 (#6).

The question remains – how many national championships does Kansas have if college basketball had a four-team playoff? Without going into analytics, I think it’s safe to say that Kansas would have more than two national championships in the past 40 years if given 14 shots at a two-game playoff. Obviously, the Jayhawks would NOT have the 1988 title, as they entered that tournament unranked and a #6 seed. But that would be offset by years like 1997 (aka “the best KU team ever”) and 2011, among others.

Mathematically, you could put the over/under at 3.5 (14 divided by 4). Realistically, well… what do you think?