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NCAA Announces New Tourney Format

When the NCAA initially leaked word that an expansion of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was imminent, many people immediately assumed the worst: 96 or even 128 teams in a bloated, overstuffed tournament that would be too much of a good thing, ruining the best weekend in college sports and completely turning away casual fans from office pools, filling out brackets, and watching the spectacle of March Madness. Imagine their surprise, then, when it was announced the expansion would be modest: by just three teams, to 68.

When that announcement was made, many of those same people again assumed the worst: that the bottom eight auto-qualifiers would be matched against one another in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-style rumble for the four 16 seeds…and the right to be blown out two days later by a 1 seed.

Clearly, many people do not trust the NCAA to do the right thing. I have no clue where they could have gotten that idea…

In any event, for the second time in this process, the NCAA has made the sensible decision. Is it the right one, though, and in particular for teams like Creighton, is it beneficial or harmful?

I guess the answer to that lies in how much you take the NCAA and the selection committee at their word. The hybrid system will see the four auto-qualifiers with the lowest RPI’s fight for two 16 seeds, while the last four at-large teams will fight over two seeds somewhere between 10-13.

What this means is that the four automatic qualifiers who have the lowest RPI’s automatically qualify for the play-in round. In other words, objective criteria determine who gets stuck in those two games. Seems fair enough.

However, there is no such objective measurement to determine the other four teams in the play-in round. Instead, they’re chosen based on the nebulous, undefined criteria of being the “Last Four In” to the tournament. If you’re prone to conspiracy theories, I suppose you could preach about the possibility of the NCAA claiming any random at-large team with a double-digit seed is one of the “last four in”, eschewing objectivity for protecting its biggest names and making mid-majors win an extra game to make the Sweet 16. This is where the drumbeat of an anti-mid major conspiracy will percolate, with one beat writer in Memphis, Dan Wolken, already leading the charge.

The fact is, there will be three more teams in this year than last, and yes, those teams will have to play an extra game, and yes, some middling BCS teams will still get bids over more deserving mid-majors. Some things will never change. But consider this. Would Creighton and its fans have moaned in 2006 or 2008 if they’d had to play on Tuesday for the right to earn a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, instead of being in the NIT? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have. On the contrary, I’d have been thrilled. Both years, they were among the group of last four out in most prognosticators’ brackets, and would likely have found themselves in the play-in round. Compared to the alternative, that sounds pretty good to me.

The bottom of the bracket, including the last four in/last four out/next four out, are usually pretty close on most bracket predictions. Seeds may differ, and some brackets have certain of those teams in while others have those same teams left out, but that grouping of 8-12 schools are generally the same on everybody’s brackets. You might see the NCAA committee make one weird choice out of the “last four in”, but its going to be pretty close to what you’d expect: two or three eighth/ninth place teams from a BCS league, and one or two additional teams from a mid-major league.

A victory in that play-in game, incidentally, is worth the same $220,000 to the conference as any other win in the tournament. That’s not an inconsequential sum.

In the end, this is a pretty minimal change to the tournament as a whole, one which will move the bubble line down three notches and grant three more teams a chance at March Madness. And twice in the last four years, such a system would likely have granted Creighton an NCAA bid. Sounds good to me, even if the Jays might have to work a bit harder once they get there.

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