As always, we should consider ourselves fortunate that the one remaining piece of NCAA tournament formatting business is this simple. Had the NCAA decided to expand its marquee event to 96 teams, we'd currently be fussing over a host of unwieldy issues -- how to seed the tournament, how scheduling would work, what to do with the NIT. It would be a mess.
Thankfully, it's just the play-in games. 68 teams means three more play-in games in each region, and the NCAA's next task is to decide which teams will be competing in those games. Will it be small schools seeded No. 16 and No. 17, similar to the current format? Or will the NCAA take a more drastic, exciting step, forcing the last eight at-large teams to play for a No. 12 seed?
This week, the men's basketball committee will decide just that. (Update: This process could take much longer than a week, according to our own Andy Katz.) Only two things are certain. One: The NCAA would really prefer you not call them "play-in" games. Technically, everybody's in the tournament. Yay! (The NCAA would also like to know if you would like an orange slice at halftime.) And two: All well and good, but pretty much no one wants to be in the play-in games anyway, thanks:
After meeting in May, the committee asked NCAA schools to give their opinions on the recommended expansion to four opening-round games, one in each region. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith confirmed there were three options on the list -- making the eight lowest seeds in the tourney play in the opening round, making the last eight at-large teams in the field play or a combination of the two.
The only clear answer heading into the meetings, which start Sunday, is this: Nobody wants to play in the opening-round games.
Teams competing in conferences such as the Southland, like Hickey's Roadrunners, or the Southwestern Athletic, a league made up primarily of historically black colleges and universities, do not want to be pigeonholed into playing an extra tourney game each year. Power-conference schools, which usually take most of the 34 at-large bids, think they should avoid the opening-round games, too.
What's interesting is that teams and athletic directors and conferences themselves have been lobbying the committee from all sides throughout Gene Smith's information-gathering process. How the committee weighs those various arguments could end up swinging the end result one way or the other. This sounds obvious, and it is. But it will be interesting to see if small schools can have as much lobbying power as the big boys. Or, failing that, if the lobbying process really works at all.
Perhaps just as interesting is that no one seems to know which way the committee might be leaning. So, in the interest of being servicey, here's yours truly's no doubt eagerly awaited and not at all original recommendation (drum roll, please): Make the big boys play.
The end result isn't as big a deal as you'd think. The tournament will still be entertaining either way, and there's an argument to be made that the increase of quality teams inherent in a 68-team field will push higher seeds to the brink of upset even more frequently. But if you're the NCAA, and you have the choice, why wouldn't you opt for a high-stakes playoff between two high-profile potential No. 12 seeds? The entertainment factor is multiplied -- fans would be five times as interested in Illinois vs. Virginia Tech as they are in your current play-in game.
Moreover, it would be a nice symbolic statement. The last eight at-large teams are frequently mediocre underachievers from major conferences. If they're mediocre enough to be the last at-large team in the tournament, they don't have the right to complain about their placement; they had plenty of chances to prove otherwise in the season's first five months. The smallest schools are not as skilled or as talented. They don't have deep pockets. But they are conference champions, and seeding them in the tournament automatically, rather than in an ancillary competition, would be a tidy nod to what makes the NCAA tournament great in the first place.
It's a rare chance for the NCAA. It can simultaneously increase its tournament's entertainment value and the number of unknown mid-majors in that tournament. There are two birds just sitting here, waiting to be killed. Will the men's basketball committee pick up the stone?