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NCAA Tournament 2014: How to fix the First Four

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Now three years old, the NCAA Tournament's First Four isn't half bad, but that's also the problem. There is an opportunity make this event more entertaining for fans and useful for players. SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

In the past three years, the First Four has established itself as something that isn't just an experiment, but likely a staple of March Madness for years to come.

It's served as the start of VCU's march to the Final Four in 2011 and La Salle's Sweet 16 run last season. In 2012, South Florida beat California in Dayton, then Temple in Nashville, meaning that in every year of the First Four a winner has advanced past the round of 64, proving that play-in games should not be mistaken for throwaway games.

And while a critical injustice has developed out of the new start to the NCAA Tournament by forcing low-level, one-bid league champions to have to jump over one more hurdle before being invited to the real party, there's a great argument to be made that two of the first four games are a perfect solution to a previous problem.

Teams, particularly suspect teams from major conferences, once relegated to being the butt of some bad jokes (see: Virginia Tech 2008-2011) and missing the tournament after sitting squarely on the bubble for weeks are given one last opportunity to prove their way into the field of 64.

Take Tennessee, for example. They were a pre-season top 25 team by most publications back in the fall. They went 10-7 in a below average SEC, including losses to flyweights South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State. But they played to their potential towards the end of the season, and had really attractive KenPom numbers.

There were skeptics as to whether or not the Volunteers were worthy of an at-large bid, however, so in order to minimize speculation the NCAA allowed UT to settle it on the court, against an equally enigmatic team in Iowa.

Two teams, both which would have been that much closer to the NIT if the field remained at 64 teams, given a fair shake and control heir own destiny.

The same can be said of Xavier and N.C State, as well as BYU, Arizona St., Dayton, Nebraska, the next four highest at-large teams in the 2014 field. Teams of this caliber should replace the Cal Polys and Albanys of the world to enhance the First Four and make it more meaningful. These are teams that can build momentum and make their next game against a likely No. 5 or No. 6 seed that much more exciting.

Watching teams compete for the right to play in the best playoff system in American sport is far more entertaining and practical than letting every talking head and fan be counterproductive and yell as to why or why not a team should have been included in the field.

If you're that close to being good enough, you should get to prove it, and that is precisely what 50 percent of the First Four delivers on.

The other half, however, is just cruel. CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel encapsulated that notion last night, following Albany's win over Mount St. Mary's.

Play-in games featuring small conference champions destined for a real first round whooping garner little interest from people that aren't directly related to the participating schools. It is a delay to the inevitable, and also sort of rude.

"If you play well enough to win your league, you shouldn't have to play a play-in-game." Albany's Peter Hooley told the Albany Times Union earlier this week.

Players like Hooley are chasing the right to play in the NCAA Tournament must approach Selection Sunday with the idea that they may have to relinquish that right by heading off to purgatory (Dayton) to play in front of a sparsely populated and disinterested crowd. It isn't necessary for the players, nor is it intriguing for fans.

We should let all 16-seed line teams "pass go" so they will be assured of basking in the excitement of the real NCAA Tournament, meet their fate against a blue blood, and be on their way back to school. We don't need to be wasting everyone's time pretending there is something real at stake when the winner of America East and Northeast Conference face off. Things like this can happen, and no self-respecting college hoops fan should have to carve out two hours of their day to watch something unsightly.

The First Four was probably created as money grab by the NCAA, but you can keep us happy if you make it a money grab that is 100 percent entertaining, not 50 percent eye-averting.

So let's take a step back, and refine the play-in games for they really should be: eight hungry at-large teams who are motivated by feeling slighted. We're halfway there to making the unofficial start to the NCAA Tournament that much more significant.