Today the NCAA announced that the new 68-team format will feature a first round comprised of the last four at-large teams on the one hand and the lowest four seeds in the entire field on the other. In other words, it’s a compromise. If you fear “compromise” and “NCAA tournament” appearing together, I’m right there with you.
There’s no elegant way to bracket a 68-team field, of course, but the most just way to bracket any sized field is simply from top to bottom. In this case that would have meant that the eight lowest-seeded teams would have played each other in play-in games, with the four winners progressing to the field of 64. Instead, the NCAA has chosen to force four at-larges to now win seven games. (And before you automatically assume “at-large” is synonymous with “major-conference” bear in mind George Mason was one of the last at-larges admitted to the field in 2006.)
I realize many pundits are fine with this today, but wait until they see it in action with actual team names inserted into these brackets. Inevitably a five-seed will lose to a 12 that emerged from a play-in game and we’ll hear all the usual talk about the “advantage” and “momentum” the 12 had from playing already. And as for talk of 10-seeds being in play-in games, mark me down as absolutely terrified. I’m already on the record as thinking that tournament seeding has far too little to do with reality. (And note that today’s decision only raises the stakes that will be riding on a team’s seed.)
Now, if you’re talking about a team seeded as high as a 10, there’s a good chance that said team is way better than the selection committee could have realized. To require a team that good to win an extra game while every year the 64th-best team in the field is guaranteed a comparatively easy six-win path is antithetical to what’s made the NCAA tournament the best postseason spectacle in major American team sports. We’ve trusted the tournament’s outcomes precisely to the extent that the courts have been neutral, the brackets have been balanced, and the opportunities have been equal.
Don’t get me wrong. A 68-team field with a funky hybrid play-in round is ten times better than a 96-team field. But today was a mistake and, worse, it was entirely avoidable.