NCAA tournament's new expansion plan much ado about nothing
The expanded tournament allowed for three new at-large teams to take part
Two of the games will match the tournament's lowest seeds, Nos. 65 through 68
Last year's 'in' teams -- UTEP, Utah St. -- would have had play-in games this year
If Seinfeld were still filming, there could be a very good episode about 2010's evolution of the NCAA tournament. After months of sturm und drang, first about a possible 96-team event and then about how to handle one with 68, the hybrid play-in game solution announced Monday really made this entire process a show about nothing.
By choosing a model that involves a pair of play-in games between the final four at-large teams in addition to two others involving the four worst auto-bid winners, the NCAA chose the solution that causes the least amount of change. The net impact on the main 64-team bracket is almost nil. After the "First Four" is over, we'll have one additional at-large team making it at the expense of one auto qualifier.
Is this the fairest solution? It doesn't discriminate against the little guy as much as some suspected while still providing three more initial at-large spots for the larger conferences and/or top mid-majors. More important, what you have gotten used to since 1985 isn't really going to change at all. The dynamics of the opening weekend will remain the same. Statistics and records from the 64-team era won't be compromised. You'll still get all the normal bubble and bracket accoutrements leading up to the event, and we won't be debating the merits of the 13th-place Big East team to turn projection into parody.
Also, two small conferences (instead of one) will add to their rolling six-year win-share totals with opening-round victories, which over time will lead to more NCAA tournament revenue money for their conferences. Last season, one NCAA win was worth over $220,000 for a conference, divided equally among all league members, and that win stays in a league's calculations for six years of payments. For small schools, that extra $20,000-$25,000 per year could lessen the need for one more guarantee game a season, which would be good for everyone concerned.
That said, after some reflection, this hedge feels disappointing. Had the committee elected to have the eight worst teams play for four 16 seeds, it would be another step in favoritism for the major conferences, but it also would have much more significantly strengthened the bottom of the bracket. With three more at-large teams in the main bracket in place of weak small-conference champions, almost an entire seed line would have been pushed down. For example, a trio of 14 seeds last year would have ended up as 15s in the new version, which means the chances of big first-round upsets would be higher (right, Georgetown?). Maybe that would weaken the last two weekends to have a 2 seed (or, heaven forbid, a 1) go out in the first round, but it would have added to the magic of the opening two days.
The other option, to have the final eight at-large teams play for four spots, would have created a more compelling opening quadrupleheader (or two doubleheaders) and wouldn't have significantly weakened the main bracket. That solution would have resulted in one additional weak team in the round of 64, at the expense of one at-large team, and we all probably could live with the possible sacrifice of a Florida or Virginia Tech -- in exchange for a larger dose of credible tourney action on Tuesday.
Now? We're left with the middle ground. The general public won't be interested in two of the First Four games, with the small-conference matchups likely to be buried in the afternoon on truTV. The bracket isn't significantly improved and the ongoing slippery slope of sacrifice of conference champs continues. This compromise also feels like a test case for a move to a 72-team event in which the eight weakest teams play for the 16-seeds and the last eight at-larges play for four spots. If that's where we're heading, they should have just done it to the small schools now. At least then they could start cashing in by beating each other in the tournament, rather than losing by 40 during the regular season in games that truly are shows about nothing.