The NCAA has now revealed details about how the expansion to a 68 team NCAA Tournament will work. The first round of the NCAA will be called the “First Four”. Clearly this name was intended to mimic the “Final Four” but somebody forgot to point out to the NCAA that the “Final Four” is four teams and the “First Four” is four games and therefore is actually eight teams. I digress, the “First Four” will have the last four small conference automatic bids fight for two spots and the final four at large teams fight for the other two spots.
Let’s first focus on the little bit of good news that resulted in this decision. The good news is that not all the teams fighting for a spot in the final 64 team NCAA Tournament will be small schools that won their conference. It also means that there will be two less major conference teams complaining that they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament even though they lost a dozen games.
The quality of the “First Four” play-in games could also be greater. Two years ago the final two at-large teams to make the NCAA Tournament were Wisconsin and Arizona. Wisconsin is a big school from a big conference. Arizona is a program with a lot of basketball history. Either team playing in the “First Four” would instantly make the play-in games more exciting than they have ever been.
There is still one glaring problem and another slightly smaller complaint with how the “First Four” is constructed. Four small schools with automatic bids being forced to play in the “First Four’s” play-in games is still four too many. They are called automatic bids for a reason. A team that wins their conference should be in the NCAA Tournament. Not the “First Four” play-in games, the real 64 team NCAA Tournament.
The other problem comes in the other “First Four” play-in games. One of the reasons the NCAA Tournament is so difficult is because teams aren’t used to playing two games in three days. The winner of the “First Four” play-in games will have to play three games in five days and will be at a huge disadvantage.
Obviously it is fine they get a disadvantage. That is their punishment for barely making the tournament. The problem is the teams that get the advantage. If the last four at-large teams play for the No. 12 seeds then the team getting the advantage in the first round is the No. 5 seed. If the No.12 seed somehow advances then the No. 4 or No. 13 seed is at an advantage. Why should the No. 5 and No. 4 seeds get the advantage of playing a tired team when the No. 2, No. 3 and two of the No. 1 seeds do not? Why would getting a high seed even matter if the No. 5 seed is going to have an advantage in the NCAA Tournament?
The biggest problem is there is no way to fix the “First Four” format. Everybody wants all four play-in games to be at-large teams but then all play-in spots are No. 12 or No. 13 seeds and the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds even have an advantage over the No. 1 overall seed. Some might think the solution is to make all four at-large play-in games for the 16 seed but if at-large teams are in the No. 16 seed then the No. 16 seed finally beating a No. 1 seed wouldn’t even be that big of an upset. Two years ago Arizona wasn’t having a great season, but Arizona upsetting the No. 1 seed would not be a big deal compared to Lehigh and when the first upset of a No. 1 seed finally happens don’t we want it to be a real upset?
The only way to fix the NCAA tournament is to have 64 teams. No play-in games. No byes. The No. 1 seed only gets the advantage of playing the lowest ranked teams and that’s it. It’s always worked before and it would always work in the future.