INDIANAPOLIS - March Madness is about to get a little bit bigger, and perhaps it will be better too.
The NCAA unveiled its plans for the newly expanded 68-team men's basketball tournament yesterday. Beginning next March, eight teams will play early the opening week in a "First Four" round, with the winners advancing to games on Thursday or Friday.
The NCAA decided against picking the lowest eight seeds. Instead, two of the early games will match the tournament's lowest seeds, Nos. 65 through 68, with the winners advancing to play a top seed. The other two games will match the last four at-large qualifiers.
The format will probably prevent mid-majors from being over-represented in the first round, and it could also mean that two teams from bigger conferences - those generally seeded between 11th and 13th - will be out before the tournament really gets going.
"You're not going to come up with the perfect model," committee chair Dan Guerrero said. "You're not going to come up with a model that is going to appease every constituency out there. But we felt that this model provided the opportunity to do something special for the tournament."
The NCAA announced in April that it would add three teams to the field, the first expansion since the tournament went from 64 teams to 65 in 2001 after going from 48 to 64 in 1985.
It was a hotly debated decision, with critics saying the tournament is already as close to perfect as any collegiate championship can be. Some pointed to Butler's run to last season's championship game and George Mason's Final Four run in 2006 as examples of parity.
The NCAA decided against a larger expansion to 80 or even 96 games. It settled on 68 teams, and its new 14-year, $10.8 billion television package with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting not only ensures that every game will be televised but gives the NCAA sole authority to expand again.
All four of the "First Four" games will be broadcast on Turner's truTV cable channel.
There has been only one early "play-in" game since 2001, when the expansion to 65 teams essentially added a 34th at-large team. Now, there will be 31 automatic bids and 37 at-large bids.
The at-large teams will be seeded where they would normally be placed in the bracket, meaning a first-round game between two No. 10 seeds would result in the winner advancing to play a No. 7 seed.
"I think some people are going to look at it and say it looks like a compromise," said Laing Kennedy, a retired Kent State athletic director who is on the men's basketball committee that developed the new format. "What we look at is that it really does preserve the integrity of the 31 automatic qualifiers."
Gene Smith, Ohio State's athletic director and a member of the committee, said there was no consensus on a favored format from the NCAA membership and "we were a little surprised."
"It also made it a little more difficult to come out to where we were," Smith said. "Where we ended up, we really feel good about."
Guerrero and NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen said the committee was sensitive to the fact that some big-name teams could be ousted shortly after the brackets are filled out.
"We took that into consideration," Guerrero said. "That would have been the consideration if all eight at-large teams had been a part of the 'First Four.' The expanded tournament allowed for three new at-large teams to get into the tournament. We felt it was appropriate since we had a 68-team model, that those three teams be a part of that equation along with the 34th at-large team."
The NCAA said there could be games on both Tuesday and Wednesday of the tournament's opening week. The Tuesday winners would play Thursday and the Wednesday winners would play Friday.
"In the end, we selected a format that we felt allows us to break new ground," Guerrero said.
Dates and locations for the first-round games have not been determined. Dayton, which has hosted the early game since 2001, is under consideration to host all four "First Four" games.
In Las Vegas, the three-team addition is likely to please gamblers.
Jay Rood, race and sports book director for MGM Resorts International, said having at-large teams essentially play their way into the 64-team section of the tournament gives it some fresh "pizazz."
"There could be some significant, popular schools that fall in that category," he said. "It'll make it a definite wagering event for anyone that's interested in college basketball."
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