The nationwide frenzy that has given us the Final Four now lays claim to the First Four.
That is the new addition to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, as the selection committee headed by UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero unveiled the long-awaited and much-hyped change in the brackets yesterday. Formerly a 65-team affair, March Madness will now feature 68 teams, with four play-in games to be contested between the last four at-large teams and last four conference champions who receive entry via the automatic bid.
It remains to be seen which seeds the at-large teams will play for, as all that has been confirmed is that the last four in will be announced on the tournament's annual selection show for the first time ever. However, it will not be the first taste of exposure for the last four in, as that quartet has been speculated upon (usually with amazing accuracy) by ESPN's Joe Lunardi on an annual basis. Therefore, we could see two 12 seeds fighting against one another for a spot in the "Big Dance," or maybe a pair of 10 or 11 seeds facing off for the right to match up against a 5, 6, or 7 when the first round officially begins.
My opinion of this subject is a mixed one. While I am in favor of adding more at-large teams, the prospect of having teams likely to be seeded between 10 and 12 play against one another first detracts from the unpredictability that has made the tournament so fun to watch over the years. Remember this: George Mason was an 11 seed when they went on their improbable run four years ago, while Davidson was a 10 in 2008 when Stephen Curry led the Wildcats into the Elite Eight; and Cornell was a number 12 when they competed in last year's Sweet 16. Under this new format, prospective Cinderellas and other mid-majors may not get a second game, as they will be thrown into a "Bracket Buster" matchup before advancing to take on a rested higher seed, a considerable factor that could tip the scales against the play-in program.
What the committee should have done; and deliberated over for a brief period of time before ultimately deciding on this structure, was this: Keep the conventional play-in game format and just multiply it by four. With that scenario, you would have eight small schools (not necessarily conference champions either, maybe 3rd or 4th-place teams from conferences like the Missouri Valley) added to the tournament. I agree with the fact that it should not be 16 vs. 17, but the exposure and media attention generated by the tournament would benefit programs like this, who could use their appearance in the tournament to attract marginal recruits. As I've mentioned before, who would be unfazed by a coach saying "We just won an NCAA Tournament game?"
Maybe it's a little biased being that I work for a small school/mid-major, (I do public address and fill-in play-by-play for St. Francis College in addition to my broadcasts on redstormsports.com for St. John's) but since I first heard the aforementioned idea pitched by St. Francis compliance director Jim Hoffman back in February, the thought of small schools has one characteristic that will always win out:
It makes the most sense.