Friday, April 23, 2010

NCAA Tournament Expansion: Should the Four Play-In Games Switch Lines?

The NCAA allowed all of its fans to breathe a sigh of relief this week, making plans to expand the men's basketball tournament to 68 teams, and featuring four play-in games, rather than a whole extra round of 32.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that these games will still be used to determine which small-conference team (think Patriot League, SWAC, or Big South) gets to have their tournament champion spit-roasted by the top-seeded likes of Duke and Kentucky. A fine reward for teams that know they have no particular chance to win the national championship anyway?

No, not really.

The NCAA is selling itself and its television partners short by clinging to this notion that the small conferences are the teams that need to jump through the additional hoop to say they got to play in the NCAA Tournament. Only the hardest of the hardcore set their DVRs to record the Winthrop v. Arkansas-Pine Bluff play-in game this season, since the winner was earning themselves nothing but a throttling by Duke.

I don't think we're venturing out on a very thin limb here to say that there are better matchups that could be had on the Tuesday before March Madness officially opens. Matchups like...North Carolina v. Florida?

Say what?

You read that right. NCAA Selection Committee chairman Dan Guerrero has indicated that the committee may decide to get a little "creative" with these four games. Placing the last four at-large teams in the play-in games and having them battle for 12 seeds is mentioned as an option.

Not just that, it looks like it's the best option for all concerned.

First, for the fans, there are better matchups to watch. Looking at Joe Lunardi's early Bracketology for next season, examine the Last Four In and First Four Out:

LFI: New Mexico, Richmond, Ole Miss, North Carolina
FFO: Arizona State, Mississippi State, Illinois, Florida

Wouldn't an evening of Ole Miss v. Illinois and North Carolina v. Florida make for much bigger ratings than the spectacle of APB and Winthrop being forced to duel to the death for the right to get hammered by a top seed?

These play-in games gain more intrigue on Selection Sunday, as the camera crews watching the bubble teams can capture an interesting blend of nervousness and relief when a team finds out that they have to play on Tuesday. The intrigue continues into the first round, when any one of these play-in teams could easily make life miserable for a fifth seed like Texas A&M or Maryland.

For CBS and the Turner networks, the financial benefit should be obvious. More fans will tune in, ratings are better, ad revenues increase.

For the NCAA, a public relations boon. The 96-team tournament was seen as little more than pandering to the six BCS conferences, allowing them to see if they could all get 10 teams into the Tournament. Making the play-in games for 12 seeds instead of 16 seeds allows the NCAA to temporarily earn some points from fans who are firmly convinced that the system exists to screw the little guys.

The coaches and players get a smaller dose of what they wanted in a 96-team Tournament: more opportunity. This opportunity will come without all of the extra pressure that would greet an extra 32 spots, however. Administrators who were concerned about their coach not being able to make the field of 65 would fire coaches left, right, and center if they could not make a 96-team field. Less radical expansion leads to less radical firings, which is exactly how the coaches need to look at this.

Players from small conference schools who put in the work to win their league's tournament get rewarded for that work by being completely able to say they were part of the Big Dance. Winthrop coach Randy Peele went on record as saying that the play-in game's loser never really feels like part of the Tournament. Why make four teams who secured automatic bids feel like their automatic bid is worth less than some SEC or Pac-10 team that squeaked in under the wire, merely because of the name on the jersey or the name of the league?

The NCAA has a chance to make the entire March Madness experience, from the first three days on, even more compelling, and soften its evil, make-the-rich-even-richer image in the same move. We just have to sit back and see if they make that move.

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