The NCAA’s nebulous plan for the 68-team expanded version of the NCAA Tournament accomplishes the two things it set out to do. First, find a way to include an extra four teams in the tournament. Second, come up with a scenario so unnatural that it forces people to talk about it.
And so they are. Let’s take a look around the SBNation College sites and see what everything things.
Those at-large teams that will be playing each other? Likely to slide into the 12-seed line. (Although they apparently could be as high as 11- or 10-seeds.) The idea behind a seeded tournament is that a No. 1 seed should have an easier road to the championship than everyone else in its region, the No. 2 easier than everyone but the No. 1, etc. So how can you say that teams that are rated up to four seeding lines higher than other teams should have a harder road to a championship — by needing to win seven games rather than six — than lower seeded teams? That goes against the very foundation of a seeded tournament.
You might say that it doesn’t really matter, since 12-seeds don’t ever make it to the Final Four or win championships anyway. That’s not even remotely the point. (Although, if that’s the way you feel, you should be in favor of contracting the tournament to 32 or even 24 or 16 teams.) Should a No. 5 seed (or No. 6 or No. 7!) get the benefit of playing a tired team in its first game? And what if the No. 12 team wins? Should a No. 4 seed get the benefit of facing a team that’s now playing its third game in five days?
That’s the problem with going for the "theater" of having at-large teams play. You’re screwing with the very nature of a seeded tournament. And if you’re going to do that, you might as well just not have a seeded tournament at all, because this sort of an arrangement just devalues the whole endeavor
As Ken Pomeroy pointed out, this is not exactly fair. (Should be fun, though.) But as Andy Katz’s story makes clear, the NCAA is of the opinion that those at-large schools are lucky to be in the tournament and have nothing to complain about. In a strict RPI sense, that may be true. But because the RPI is such a poor indicator of strength, you can bet we’re going to see underrated teams forced to deal with the added degree of difficulty.
This issue cuts right to the heart of what you think the purpose of the tournament is. Clearly it’s not just for determining a champion, or else it would be smaller than 64 teams and the Patriot League wouldn’t have a guaranteed spot. I get that you have to throw a bone to the smaller conferences when they have an equal say in how things work.
What makes the tournament great is that almost every game is a competitive match up. The 1-16 games have never been great, and the 2-15 upsets are increasingly rare. Kicking the current 15-seeds down a notch and adding more at-large teams to the middle increases the number of good games. Perhaps the 2-15 games wouldn’t get much better, but the 3-14 games sure would be and so on. That would have improved the tournament as a whole.
Instead, we only get to add one new at-large to the middle and basically preserve the awfulness of what the 2-15 line has become. This is a simple ratings grab to try to actually get some viewers to tune in on Tuesday night by tossing in some borderline at-larges with the 16-seed play-in games.
While I still feel expansion was a completely unnecessary innovation, a three-team jump was certainly the way to go, and this format, even though it smacks of trying to please everyone involved, should work well.