- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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You know, this tournament expansion thing went pretty darn well.
If you had told me at the Final Four, as the NCAA stumped endlessly for a 96-team tournament, that by the second week of July we'd all be singing the new-look NCAA tournament's praises, I probably would have slapped you. "No! I'll never like tournament expansion! You can't make me!" Then I would have gotten in my bunker and started working on a WiFi connection. Necessities.
Yet here we are. After stepping back from the precipice and discarding the 96-team idea (at least for now) in favor of a minimal expansion to 68 teams, the NCAA has shared with the world its new tournament format. And guess what? It's actually kind of cool.
That format is as follows: Two play-in games -- now called "first round games," but that won't fool anyone -- will be played between automatic qualifiers for the No. 16 seed, much as the current play-in game did. The other two play-in games will pit the last four at-large teams in the tournament against one another for those at-large seeds, based on the larger tournament seeding. In other words, at-large teams can play for a No. 10 seed, or a No. 12, or whatever, at which point they will begin their tournament as those seeds have in the past.
So this "first round" is a combination of the two popular formats the men's basketball committee was debating after its tournament announcement. Many assumed the NCAA would choose the No. 16-seed format for all four games. The at-large idea seemed slightly more radical, and thus much more unlikely.
But the NCAA surprised us again. It chose a mix of the two. Who saw that coming?
I certainly didn't. To his credit, our own Andy Katz floated the possibility back on July 2, and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who is also the NCAA tournament committee chairman, acknowledged the option as a legitimate one in late June. But seeing the hybrid format go from whimsical possibility to cold, hard reality still requires a mental leap on par with "Wow, it's not 96 teams. That's actually not all that bad! Sweet!"
The final four at-large teams will no doubt have a good whinge at what they will perceive as a new second-class status, but oh well. Those teams -- which will be revealed publicly for the first time in the tournament's history -- are typically schools from BCS programs that have every advantage in the race for a favorable NCAA tournament seed. By tourney time, those teams will have little reason to complain.
The format also adds an element of entertainment: The play-in game, which previously went ignored by most fans and media, will now feature four teams with larger national profiles and fan bases. Fans of those teams will have a reason to tune in before the first Thursday of the tournament to see which of the at-larges can scrap their way into the tournament, and casual hoops viewers will surely appreciate those games more than the old format.
The NCAA managed to create this scenario without punishing smaller, less attractive TV options -- the "first round" will be televised on TruTV -- four of whom will still compete in traditional No. 16-seed play-in games. I believe the term for this is "win-win."
Sure, the tournament was probably better with 64 teams. It was certainly less unwieldy. If there's a downside to the hybrid format, it's that lack of simplicity. It makes the tournament bracket more difficult to understand, and in an age where casual college hoops viewership is under siege from all entertainment sides, that's not a good thing.
But expansion was always going to happen. At the end of the day, the NCAA tournament will now feature more teams, the play-in rounds will actually provide entertainment and fans will be able to watch every game on one network or another throughout the entirety of the tournament. That doesn't sound so bad, does it?
No, it doesn't. Which means it might be time to admit something horrifying: NCAA tournament expansion might actually be a good thing. Bunker sold separately.