- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.
(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)
Much of 2012's Field Notes will be similar to 2011's version, but that's OK: The advice is universal, the dictums not restricted by temporality. In other words, what made sense last season mostly still makes sense this season. Mostly.
This is the first edition in the series, and it's a warm-up rant. I just need to get this off my chest.
The round of 32 is the second round. If you disagree, we can't be friends.
Last season, as it worked to negotiate a massive new television contract with CBS and Turner Sports, the NCAA expanded its marquee event. Contrary to apocalyptic scenarios divined the world over, this expansion did not enlarge the tournament to 96 teams. No doubt buoyed by said massive TV deal (a 14-year, $11 billion rights agreement that increased the NCAA's average yearly revenues from the $500 million range to $771 million) signed without the inclusion of another 31 at-large teams that no one wants to watch play postseason basketball anyway, the NCAA settled on a modest expansion: three whole teams.
What it did with those three teams was most interesting. In an effort to gin up interest for the previously bereft play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, the NCAA formatted the Dayton games to include the last four at-large teams in the field, as well as four low-seeded automatic bids from the nation's smallest conferences. This was a reasonable and altogether fair solution.
But what the NCAA did next, while understandable, has become one of most annoying things about the NCAA tournament: It decided to call the play-in games the "first round." Throughout its materials, the round of 64 -- the artist formerly known colloquially as "the first round" -- became the second round, and the round of 32 -- the former second round -- became the third.
This was a sneaky little trick, a flash of modern branding, a convenient way to get people to stop calling the events in Dayton "play-in games."
I refuse to play along.
This was as much of an issue last season, when most seemed to patently reject the idea. But I've seen the new terminology creeping into use more and more in the new format's second year. As such, I fear we college hoops fans are becoming the proverbial frog in the gradually boiling water: Before we know it, we'll forget the old way ever existed, a relic of history lost forever to the memory hole.
Obviously -- obviously! -- I'm exaggerating for effect. At the end of the day, who cares what we call the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament? Big deal, right? And I can understand why the NCAA wants to brand the tournament this way: When you call the Dayton games play-ins, the implication -- or at least the implication the NCAA fears -- is that those teams aren't actually in the tournament. That would devalue those teams' accomplishments, and quite possibly hurt their feelings. And gosh, we don't want that.
But as noted proud NCAA tweaker Jay Bilas said on the broadcast Sunday night -- and has tweeted since -- calling the Dayton games the "first round" is essentially saying that every team that isn't in Dayton (so, like, all of them) gets a first-round bye. That's just patently ridiculous.
What's more, it's confusing. I want to be able write about the tournament and to talk to my buddies without everyone getting all confused about which round is first and which is second. We need to all be on the same page. And that page is not, in this case, the NCAA's.
Join with me, college hoops fans. Scream it from the mountaintops. Make signs. Occupy the bracket. Contact your local congressman. (Ha, just kidding, don't do that, they don't read their email anyway.) The first round is the first round. Call Dayton whatever you want. It doesn't have to be "play-in." Let's just call them the Dayton games! It doesn't matter! As long as we can all agree that the round of 64 -- the first round for as long as the tournament has existed -- remains the first round, then we'll have established some measure of rhetorical consistency and some measure of sanity in this deal.
This is not a very important thing to be bothered about. I realize that. But I can't help it. It drives me nuts.
As my podcast producer Jay Soderberg (aka PodVader) might say, enough with this ridiculousness.
Next in Field Notes: On the merits of bracket loyalty.