The college basketball offseason has at least one more big story to offer us before it recedes into the summer wilderness: Play-in games.
When the Division I men's basketball committee decided to stop NCAA tournament expansion at three teams -- moving from 65 teams and one play-in game to 68 teams and a play-in game for each of the tourney's four regions -- the college hoops world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Sixty-eight teams isn't necessarily ideal. What's wrong with 64 in the first place? But anything -- literally anything -- is better than 96 teams.
That's why the current play-in deliberations are pretty much gravy. Whatever the committee decides, the tournament won't be an unrecognizable mess, and that's enough for me.
Still, the matter must be decided: Just what should the NCAA tournament do with those three extra teams? Should the play-in games feature the No. 16 and No. 17 seeds battling for a chance to play each region's No. 1? Or should the committee make the last eight at-large teams play a No. 12-No. 13 game for the chance to play a No. 5 seed?
For his part, Ohio State athletic director and incoming chairman of the men's basketball committee Gene Smith is mulling both options, and he doesn't seem to be dismissing either:
Smith is still awaiting reports from some conferences, so he's not sure whether a consensus has developed. He said his personal preference, which could change, would be to have the 16th and 17th seeds play each other for the right to face each region's top seed. But Smith said he also sees the merit of a proposal that would pit the final eight at-large teams against one another in those first four games.
"The teams on the 17th and 16th and 15th lines, they're conference champions," Smith said, albeit from small conferences. "The last eight in are fifth in their league, sixth in their league, maybe seventh in their league. They're not champions."
It's a valid point. More often than not, however, teams that end up in the play-in game are champions of incredibly weak conferences; that's why those teams are slated for the play-in game in the first place. It's hard to argue your average major conference at-large team -- say, the 2009-10 Illinois Fighting Illini -- isn't better than your average play-in team.
There are other considerations, of course. If I was the NCAA, I'd want to increase the interest in the play-in games as much as possible. As long as those games are seen as nothing more than exhibitions for the right to lose in the "real" first-round of the tournament, few are going to watch or engage with them. But if the NCAA made the play-in games high-stakes affairs featuring major conference at-large teams -- as another 2010 example, say Illinois vs. Virginia Tech -- fans would turn out in droves.
That strategy would also help an extra mid-major sneak into the tournament every once in a while, and that's not the worst side effect of all-time, either. And there's also the fact that a 16/17 play-in game pushes more and more capable teams up the bracket, likely leading to more upsets on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
There's also the matter of figuring out just where these games will be played. Phil Martelli's idea from late May is perhaps the best one -- Martelli suggested the NCAA schedule the four play-in games at four historic basketball sites across the country. (My nominations are the Palestra, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Phog. Not geographically perfect, but close enough.) Per Smith's comments, though, this idea seems incredibly unlikely. Instead, it appears the committee is leaning toward hosting all four games in Indianapolis:
"It's going to be real hard because all of us have this emotional tie to what Dayton has done for us," Smith said. "They've been unbelievable. But then there's the thought of playing it at one place, maybe in Indianapolis. I don't know where it's going to end up. I, right now, would probably lean toward doing them all in Indianapolis because they're easier to operate. They're easy to get to. You've got the NCAA staff there that can run them."
That's a little bit boring, but the idea of having all four games in the same area at the same time makes sense. Fans could buy tickets for all four games; you could give the event a name like the "Mini Four," which is terrible and should never be used, but you get the idea. Maybe an organized, unified event brings out the fans even if the teams all hail from tiny conferences. It's possible.
In the end, the play-in games will never become an event on par with the Final Four. They'll never equal the first day of the NCAA Tournament. That goes without typing. But it's not hard to see a few tweaks leading to a far more entertaining play-in game. Hey, if we're going to have four of them, they might as well be fun.