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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Ditch the NCAA's new names for rounds

By Eamonn Brennan

When the NCAA decided to expand the tournament in the offseason, it mercifully settled on a minor expansion to 68 teams. That meant the creation of a four-game contest in Dayton, Ohio, which begins two days before the rest of the NCAA tournament. That competition pits four low-seeded automatic qualifiers -- much like the traditional play-in format we've come to know and ignore -- and four not-as-low-seeded bubble-bound at-large teams. That's eight teams playing for four spots in Thursday and Friday's full-bracket action.

This was an excellent compromise. Dayton was an ideal location. The new format didn't job the lowly auto-bids in favor of high-major bubble teams, but it didn't ignore them either. And it gave us some interesting midweek basketball to watch featuring teams that might actually win their first-round games.

No offense to the SWAC, but when Clemson and UAB take the floor tonight, we won't just be watching teams guaranteed to lose to the No. 1 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead, we'll have reason to pay attention to the tourney action in Dayton for the first time since the tournament expanded to 65 teams.

And, better yet, it even got a catchy name: the "First Four." All in all, this was a fantastic idea.

I have but one complaint with the NCAA: I refuse to call this the first round of the tournament. I'm not going to do it. I just won't.

Yes, in its bracket and promotional materials, the NCAA has officially termed the First Four "the first round." Thursday and Friday's round-of-64 action is, according to the NCAA, the "second round." The round of 32 is the "third round." The good news is that the later rounds are universally referred to by their nicknames -- the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four. Fortunately, the madness stops somewhere. But make no mistake. It is madness.

The First Four is not the first round of the NCAA tournament. This year's Dayton games aren't any different from the games we're used to seeing in Dayton; what's at stake is a place in the bracket next to the other 64 teams, same as always. Nothing has changed but the nomenclature. Unfortunately, you can't call something the "first round" when only 5.89 percent of the teams in the bracket are playing. You just can't. It doesn't make sense.

Of course, the NCAA's reasons for doing this are mostly virtuous: The NCAA doesn't want teams slotted in the First Four to think of themselves as outside the NCAA tournament. They're also based in business: The NCAA doesn't want fans to think Tuesday and Wednesday games are any less worth watching than Thursday and Friday's. But it's OK, NCAA! We don't think that, and neither should the teams playing in the games tonight. They were mentioned on Selection Sunday. They're playing in a game that 281 other Division I basketball teams would happily sign up for. They're in the NCAA tournament. They should be proud.

They are not, however, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That happens Thursday and Friday, when it's always happened, when you skip out on work early -- or just don't show up at all -- and go to a sports bar and track the action with a bracket and a beer. That's the first round of the NCAA tournament. No bureaucratic decree can change that fact.

And you simply can't call something the second round when only four of the 64 teams in that round are playing their second game of the tournament. Sorry, but we're not buying the notion that 60 teams have byes into the "second round."

In that spirit, then, I ask the bracket-obsessed public to stand beside me. Join my -- our -- cause.

Our demands our not unreasonable. We hold these truths to be self-evident: On Thursday and Friday, we will be watching the NCAA tournament's first round. On Saturday and Sunday, we will pack our favorite sports bars and crowd around the TVs for the second round.

In exchange, as a token of good faith, we will henceforth happily ignore the term "play-in."  Instead, we will happily adopt the NCAA's terminology for Tuesday and Wednesday's games. They are the "First Four."

We are not radicals. We do not seek massive systemic overhaul. We want only what our forefathers wanted: To call the NCAA tournament's actual first round by its true name. It doesn't insult the teams, and it doesn't make us any less likely to watch.

It does, however, make sense. And isn't that what really matters?

OK, so none of this matters. But seriously, I'm not calling the First Four the first round. End of discussion.