Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New NCAA 68-team tournament format could have been worse

By John Feinstein
The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; D04

There's a very old joke about a funeral. The rabbi stands in front of the congregation and says, "I know you all have something you want to say about our dear departed friend. So instead of a eulogy, I'd like you each to stand up and tell us what you loved best about him."

Complete silence.

"Don't be shy," the rabbi says. "I know this is hard. Who's going to go first?"

More silence.

Finally, the rabbi says, "Okay, I'm going to get this started. You, Adam, in the first row, you start us off."

Adam reluctantly gets to his feet, shrugs and says, "His brother was worse."

That joke came to mind Monday when the NCAA men's basketball committee finally got around to revealing how the new and un-improved 68-team tournament will work next March.

It could have been worse.

Of course, it could have been a lot better.

And because the NCAA is the NCAA, we still don't know all the details. One can only hope that by Selection Sunday, the committee will figure out exactly where it is going to send teams to begin the tournament.

Here are the basics:

-- The four play-in games will be called first-round games. This is so NCAA and means that no fewer than 60 teams -- that has to be a record for any event, right? -- will have "byes" into the second round.

-- The last four automatic-bid teams in the field will play one another for the last two No. 16 seeds.

-- The last four at-large teams into the field will play one another for two spots somewhere in the field. The committee, which loves to be as vague as it can be at all times, said Monday that two teams could (in theory) play for a No. 10 seed; two others could play for a No. 12 seed. The release didn't mention a No. 11 or a No. 13 but presumably that could also happen. The four teams might be sent to four separate regions or, again in theory, two or three could be placed in the same region.

-- The games will be played over two nights, presumably Tuesday and Wednesday. At least that appears to be the case because the NCAA is claiming all four games will be televised in prime time on something called TruTV, which is owned by new television co-partner, Turner. Apparently neither Turner nor TBS wanted their airwaves darkened by No. 16 seeds, and the always politically correct committee wasn't going to put the 16s on TruTV and the big conference teams on Turner or TBS. So, everyone goes to TruTV. Call your cable provider to find out exactly what the heck that is.

Here's what still hasn't been explained: where the games will be. If they're going to be played over two nights, they almost certainly have to be at what are now being called, "second- and third-round" sites -- one of them being Verizon Center next March. No doubt building availability may still be at issue, as is building size. The NCAA likely doesn't want single play-in games being played in a 20,000-seat building such as Verizon Center. An alternative might be finding smaller buildings in the same city or nearby. In Washington, for example, a play-in game (sorry, NCAA, that's what these will be called here, now and forever) could be played at George Mason's Patriot Center, which seats about 10,000.

Dayton, which hosted the one play-in game the past 10 years, is probably out of the picture because with the two-night format, teams will have only one day off before they play again. Making that one day a travel day doesn't seem to make sense, especially if a team has to travel to the West Coast. If they play the game in the same city, the players can sleep in the next day, go through the practice day with the other seven teams and play on either Thursday or Friday.

Sound complicated? It is. That's because what makes sense is a 64-team tournament, with four 16-team brackets. But the NCAA is all about making an extra buck, even when that means making simple things complicated in an effort to satisfy TV partners.

Actually, to be completely fair, TV partners might have been all that prevented this from being a complete travesty in this case. If not for TV, there's no doubt all four of these play-in games would involve the last eight automatic bid teams in the field (think: champions of leagues such as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Sun Belt, Ohio Valley) because the committee usually does everything it can to help the big conference out. But because TV wants at least one decent game a night -- you can bet the automatic bid teams will play the early game both days -- the committee compromised and will make four at-large teams play in the "first" round.

The bracket won't be drawn for nine months, but one already can hear the seventh-place coaches in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten screaming: "I'd love to see how the [choose one] Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Patriot League, Southwestern Athletic Conference, Big South, Southern Conference champion would do in our league. You think they could finish above .500? Typical NCAA, being politically correct and caving to the media."

Of course that same coach wouldn't be caught dead playing the best team in any of those leagues anywhere during the regular season. That coach needs to shut up and be glad his team isn't going to the NIT, which is probably where it deserves to go.

The bottom line: We're all grateful that we aren't talking about a 96- team format for next year. No doubt, somewhere down the road in a few years, we will be. That's one reason the NCAA is using this silly "first round" terminology -- so people will get used to saying it and to discussing which teams will be getting byes. That number is going to increase over the next few years.

The committee also made a big deal in its release about the fact that, "for the first time," it would reveal the last at-large team into the field. Imagine that: a little tiny bit of (forced) transparency.

Oh, one last thing for those of you scoring at home: The NCAA release said nothing about the fact that the "student-athletes" from four schools, not just one, will miss an entire week of class to play in the first and second rounds of the tournament.

It's a minor point -- but worth making only because it's true and the committee doesn't want you to even think about it. After all, as Texas-San Antonio Athletic Director and committee member Lynn Hickey explained to a group of writers at this year's Final Four, "Everything we do is for the student-athletes."

Sure. And it's been a breezy summer in Washington.

That's where we are with the NCAA now: taking solace in the fact that it could have been worse.

For more from the author, visit his blog at http://www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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