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68-Team NCAA Tournament Will Feature At-Large Play-In Games

Back when the NCAA announced that it was expanding March Madness to 68 teams, there were two dominant theories about how this would play out in the bracket.

The first was that the additional three at-large teams would simply push down the automatic qualifiers from lesser conferences, effectively having 16/17-seeds fight to play 1-seeds in the first round of the tournament. Given that the folks at the NCAA likely wouldn't go to the trouble of adding three more at-large teams (presumably lesser teams from power conferences) merely to have them eliminate each other in play-in games before making the field of 64, this seemed like the odds-on choice.

The other possibility was that the new at-large teams would square off in play-in games for the right to play 5/6/7-seeds. This would decidedly add more intrigue to what has been fairly bland play-in fare, but it would get rid of half of the additional qualifiers before even getting to the main event.

So which option did the NCAA choose? In Solomonic fashion, they have split the difference, with the last four at-large teams in the field playing for spots in the 64-team field, as well as the last four automatic qualifiers vying for spots opposite 1-seeds in the opening stanza, per Andy Katz of ESPN.

The four play-in games -- dubbed the "First Four" -- will take place on the Tuesday or Wednesday following Selection Sunday, and will be aired on TruTV. The winners of the at-large games will play either a 5, 6, or 7-seed depending upon where they themselves are seeded (i.e., two 11-seed will play each other for the right to play a 6-seed, or two 12-seeds will play to win the chance to take on a 5-seed, etc). The winners of the play-in games between the automatic qualifiers, however, will still play 1-seeds in the first round of the tournament. The appeal for the NCAA with this hybrid approach to these play-in games is that rather than solely being the province of directional schools from lower-tier conferences few fans have either heard of, half of the games will feature "name" programs that should generate (better) ratings.

This expansion compromise is certainly quirky, but there are a few pratfalls that will likely come to the front with the new play-in games between at-larges. For one, 4-seeds will have a definite gripe that lower-seeded teams get the advantage of playing fatigued teams in the first round, while they do not. Secondly, the selection committee will have to justify why certain 5/6/7 seeds will get the benefit of playing tired teams, while the others do not. Expect plenty of controversy ahead.