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April 30, 2010
How Will 68 Teams Work?

by John Gasaway


Last week the NCAA announced that next year's Division I men’s basketball tournament will expand to include 68 teams, a move that was widely hailed as a pleasant surprise. Right up until the announcement it had been assumed that the tournament was about to grow to 96 teams, a prospect that filled many college hoops fans with trepidation if not outright terror. When the number “68” was proclaimed instead, something approaching jubilation promptly ensued.

Nevertheless, last week’s surprising news does leave us with one as yet unresolved detail. How exactly will a 68-team bracket work? The NCAA has said a decision there won’t be made until this summer. Obviously with each region now hosting 17 teams, there will have to be four so-called “play-in” games in place to whittle the field down in advance of a 64-team “first” round. The question at hand is which eight teams should try to play their way “in”?

In advance of the NCAA’s answer to that question, I’m here to offer a simple and admittedly unsurprising proposal. The eight teams in the play-in games should be the eight lowest seeds in the 68-team field.

I realize that mine is not the sexiest idea on the table. Indeed there have already been calls for the play-in games to become true bubble showdowns, contests featuring the lowest-seeded at-large teams. For example this year that might have meant play-in games between UTEP and Illinois, or perhaps between Minnesota and Virginia Tech. Presumably the winners of such games would then meet something close to a five-seed in the first round.

Sounds entertaining enough. Then again the hue and cry the first time a 12-seed with a win already under its belt beats a five-seed will be instantaneous. In fact I’ll wager it will be about like what we already hear on Thursday every year during the Big East tournament, as highly-seeded teams lose in the quarterfinals to lower seeds with one or even two wins already in their possession.

Not to mention any tournament--whether of the conference or NCAA variety--will usually open rather quietly, as games are won by teams that are very likely to lose very soon. Fans understand that. The fact that Madison Square Garden is really sleepy on Tuesday evening during the week of the Big East tournament doesn’t mean the event itself is somehow flawed. It means simply that the field is being whittled down.

It’s true that Minnesota vs. Virginia Tech would appeal to a much larger audience than, say, Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Winthrop (this year’s play-in game). But is the tournament here merely to create the most exciting opening games imaginable? If so we’d have the one-seeds square off right away. Instead the NCAA seeds entrants with the avowed if never fully attainable intention of creating a fair bracket. And requiring bubble teams to play an extra game would achieve 40 minutes of marginally more entertaining opening-round TV at the expense of fairness.

Consider next year’s as-yet empty bracket. We know in advance that eight teams in that bracket will have to win seven games to be crowned as national champions. It’s harder to win seven games than it is to win six. Placing seven opponents in front of a team puts them at a disadvantage relative to the rest of the field. The question is who should face that disadvantage?

You may ask: What’s the difference? Bubble teams won’t last long enough to worry about the “unfairness” of asking them to win seven games. I know it seems like bubble teams always lose early in the tournament, but in truth that’s not necessarily the case. George Mason, of course, made the Final Four as an at-large 11-seed in 2006. So too did LSU in 1986. Not to mention teams like Wisconsin and North Carolina in 2000, both of whom came close to not making the tournament at all yet made it to the Final Four that year. Yes, these examples are few and far between, but they do exist.

Conversely 16-seeds are now 0-104 in the NCAA tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Placing an extra opponent in the path of such teams is rough justice, to be sure, but the operative word here is “justice,” especially if the field is seeded correctly.

Requiring the eight lowest-seeded teams to play an extra game would show that the NCAA’s using one criterion--fairness--for seeding the entire 68-team field. On the other hand creating play-in bubble showdowns, in addition to driving the entire United States to actually get their brackets in by Tuesday, would prove that “opening-round entertainment” had established itself as the animating principle behind the path laid out for eight teams. That would be a mistake. The tournament is sublimely entertaining in large part because we trust its outcomes, even if those outcomes commence rather quietly with the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Winthrop.

This article originally appeared at ESPN Insider. John also offers unsolicited advice to the NCAA on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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