NCAA men’s basketball fans breathed a sigh of relief on April 29, 2010, when the NCAA’s board of directors decided against expanding the tournament to 96 teams, keeping oversized brackets and 1-seed versus 32-seed matchups off the table. Too bad they actually approved something possibly worse: a 68-team field.
As any basic mathematician could tell you, 68 teams doesn’t make an even field. The new approval adds three more play-in games to the tournament. A play-in game is a game between two teams who are competing to make the field of 64. In past years, there has just been one, held on the Tuesday before the tournament. However, because the men’s basketball committee still has to approve the new format over the summer, this faux-expansion still has a chance to get nixed because neither of two play-in possibilities is logical and/or helpful to many of the groups involved.
Proposal 1: Create three new play-in games in addition to the current one.
This section could simply read, “Arkansas Pine-Bluff v. Winthrop, 2010,” and then move to Proposal 2. If two teams play in the woods, and no one’s there to see it, does anyone actually care?
The answer is yes, and it’s those teams that are playing for their “tournament lives,” or, as it should be phrased, “the right to get throttled.” They don’t care who’s watching, just who wins and moves on to round one. However, by putting eight of these little guys who earned a bid to the dance into play-in games, the tournament guarantees four of them never really see the actual tournament. Sounds fair, considering this might be the first time that school made the tournament, and does not actually make it. This kind of system is a protection system for the power-6 conferences (Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Big East, ACC and Pac-10), assuring four teams bordering on mediocre entrance to the real opening round, while the Murray and Wright States have to fight to get killed by these power teams. It hurts the Cinderella opportunities, something any true tourney fan loves, because it tires them out early, and then puts them against the 1-seed, which has never lost to a 16-seed. These little schools deserve an actual reward for being conference champions, not the opportunity for a ticket to the slaughterhouse.
Also not the biggest fans of the proposed expansion: CBS and Turner Broadcasting. The conglomerates just signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with the NCAA to broadcast all of the games live nationally, and fans get to choose which games they want to watch. But if the games are anything like play-in games of the past, fans will choose to watch none. Those two companies just love hearing that people will be tuning out, and will lose lots of money over that contract with all these extra unimportant games. Not sure how many people tuned into the thriller mentioned above, but let’s just say “For the Love of Ray J 2” reruns probably got more viewers. The fan at home, even if they are big college basketball fans, may know only a few of these teams, and cares about these games only to know who the 1-seed will kill in their bracket. If these companies have any pull, which seems only natural since they invested the equivalent of a third world country’s economy into a month of programming, they would never let this proposal happen. Or those 14-years are going to shorten very soon.
Proposal 2: Fill all four play-in games with the final eight at-large bids, and make them play for a bid.
This seems to solve the two problems outlined above, since the 2009-2010 dance would have featured big names like Florida, Illinois and Virginia Tech, which would have drawn sizable audiences to please CBS and Turner. However there’s one huge flaw here: What seed do they play for? A 12-seed? It doesn’t seem right to make a 12-seed play an extra forty minutes and win seven games to win the title, while a 13-seed who may be less qualified only needs six (Although I’m not arguing that a 12- or 13-seed will win a tourney any time soon). Obviously these teams won’t be 16-seeds — the tourney is supposed to support the big schools and the power conferences would complain to no end. But since the NCAA is intent on making a fair bracket, unless 2010 Selection Committee Chairman Dan Guerrero lied a million times after Selection Sunday, then there is no logical way to decide who has to play extra. The NCAA is clearly not just concerned with ratings, otherwise they would just have all the 1-seeds play immediately, always pitting the best teams to draw the best viewers.
So how does the NCAA solve this problem for good? Stop this expansion, and eventually eliminate the play-in game entirely. The play-in game disadvantages one of these little teams, and appears to be negligible in profits for the TV companies. There’s no fair way to make the play-in game for a non-16-seed, but if it involves power schools, that won’t happen either. While Northwestern’s place in the Big Ten makes expansion good for its chances to make the first NCAA tournament visit in school history, can Wildcat fans really be excited about making a diluted field and possibly getting bounced in a play-in game? The expansion seems useless and hurts more than it helps, so it’s just better to eliminate one at large bid (hopefully from a power conference), and let all the teams who earned it actually play in the first round.