Yesterday afternoon the NCAA announced its new plan for an expanded 68 team NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Their decision and its timing were both shrewd maneuvers by the NCAA. They chose to announce their new plan during one of the two days a year without majors sports, and they chose to blend the two most popular potential formats for the newly dubbed “first round.” One of the most popular formats would have had the 8 lowest seeded, automatic qualifiers (teams from small conferences such as America East, Big Sky, NEC and MEAC) play 4 games to determine who would be the 16 seeds. This would have expanded on the current “opening round” format, as the two lowest seeded teams currently play for the right to be the last 16 seed. Under this scenario, at-large teams would benefit the most. More spots would be available, taking teams off the bubble. The other format suggested was to have the last 8 at-large teams play for the right to be the final 4 at-large teams in the tournament. In all likelihood, the teams that won these games would have been slotted in as 11 or 12 seeds.
By choosing to blend the two formats, the NCAA avoided thoroughly angering both the large conferences and the small conferences. If the NCAA had chosen either format, there would have been backlash from the conferences affected. I believe that if the smaller schools and conferences were forced to contest all of the play-in games we could have seen a repeat of lawsuits and potential Congressional interference similar to the what is taking place with the BCS. In forcing 4 of the lowest seeded teams to play for 16 seeds, the NCAA is hoping to create better match-ups in what has now been renamed the 2nd round (previously the first round, I know this is getting confusing). Basically, ever team between 11/12 (wherever the NCAA decides to put the at-large play-in winners) and 16 will be seeded 2 slots lower than they would have in the previous format. This should lead to better match-ups between the lowest seeded teams and their higher seeded counterparts. If the NCAA had chosen to make the at-large teams play all 4 play-ins, the power conferences would have been up in arms and several important fan-bases would have been angered. Since in the end, this is all about money the NCAA did not want to anger fans of teams that sell a lot of tickets. The decision to make the last 4 at-large teams play for the last 2 at-large spots does create come compelling basketball between middling teams from the power conferences. The standard of basketball will likely be higher in these games than in the games between the future 16 seeds, and in theory, the winners will be better teams providing better match-ups for the higher seeded team waiting to play them. One positive I could see about the new format is that mid-majors could benefit. With the last four at-large teams playing, perhaps a few mid-majors might sneak into the tournament by winning the play-in games.
While, on the surface this might seem like a perfect compromise, I think the NCAA chickened out with this decision. While the early indication is that coaches seem to like the compromise, I think the play-in games (or as the NCAA has now dubbed them, the First Four) should have been between the last 8 at-large teams. This would have produced the most compelling basketball, and would have ensured the best television ratings for the NCAA. Since it is all about money, and television rights are the largest source of that money, why wouldn’t you want to make the best match-ups in the play-in games? I also think that the NCAA penalizes the small schools with this decision, assuring that one more school from a small conference will not see the full-fledged tournament. If the NCAA doesn’t want to include the smaller conferences, then there should be some restructuring of the divisions. Perhaps the smallest Division I conferences should be a new Division I-AA, similar to football. Given that there are over 300 teams that play Division I basketball, this could be a workable solution. Nobody seems to be unhappy with the current division of NCAA football (I’m not saying football is perfect, there should be a playoff).
Short of a landscape changing new order, I say let in the small schools. If they win their conference championship, why not allow them to compete against the other conference champions for the overall NCAA title? We don’t relegate the weakest division or conference champions in professional sports to play-in status. If we did that, the NBA Eastern conference would almost never make it to the NBA Finals and the 82-80 San Diego Padres from 2005 would not have made the playoffs. Instead of penalizing the small schools, I say make the bubble teams work for it. As I mentioned before, this would produce more compelling games and would mean that the small teams still get their one moment in the limelight. The middling teams from power conferences bound for the play-in games had all season to show they were worthy of making the tournament and weren’t quite up to that task. While these teams are undoubtedly better than the conference winners from the smaller conferences, they are just as unlikely to win the NCAA title. As Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said to ESPN, “I always thought it should be the last four in. I think if you’re one of those teams, you ought to just be happy to be in.’’ I wholeheartedly agree with this comment.
As for the bracket ramifications, it will make running the office pool infinitely more difficult. With teams being selected late Sunday and the First Four games taking place on Tuesday or Wednesday, the amount of time to fill out the bracket is cut in half. It will also make the bracket much more complicated visually and will lead the casual fan into utter confusion. I can already see my co-workers missing picks and scratching their heads as they try to fill out their bracket. Many of my co-workers had a difficult time filling out the bracket in its previous format, I can only imagine the chaos that will ensue.