NCAA tournament will use ‘Final Four’ in first round

Published 11:43 pm Monday, July 12, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS — Get ready for a First Four before the Final Four.

The NCAA unveiled its plans for the expanded 68-team men’s basketball tournament on Monday, opting for a format that involves the lowest seeds and last at-large qualifiers in a “First Four” round.

Beginning next March, eight teams will play early in the first week, with the winners advancing to games on Thursday or Friday.

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The NCAA decided against picking the lowest eight seeds for the new round. 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 probably will prevent mid-majors from being over-represented in the first round, and 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 already is 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 teams. It settled on 68 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 opening game each year since 2001. Now, there will be 31 automatic bids and 37 at-large openings for the tournament.

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.”

Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade called the final choice an “interesting approach” and said her members generally supported just having the bottom eight seeds slug it out to make the second round.

Daniel Gavitt, Big East associate commissioner, said he thought the “hybrid” plan under consideration was to put the last four at-large teams in games against the bottom four seeds — an easier task, in theory, for the at-large teams. He also expressed some concern over whether the winners of the at-large games might have an advantage in the second round, having already played and won.

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.

There was concern that the new additions would be smaller schools from the same leagues. Since 2001, a school from the Southwestern Athletic Conference has been sent to the early opening game five times.

Athletic director Skip Perkins, whose Arkansas-Pine Bluff team won last season’s tournament opener, said he thought the committee did a good job, and offered a few suggestions.

“I hope it’s not a situation where the MEAC and the SWAC always have the play-in games,” Perkins said. “And No. 2, I would hope that it would never be two play-in games at one time. … I would at least hope that out of those four, that each would have their own life.”

Locations for the first-round games have not been determined. Dayton, Ohio, which has hosted the early game since 2001, is under consideration to host each of the first four games.

Ball State coach Billy Taylor said he hopes the NCAA isn’t finished tweaking.

“What I’m still hoping for is that this is a step along the road of making more room to expand the tournament, and to allow more teams to participate within reason,” he said. “I really see this as just a gradual step. This isn’t where we’re going to finish, but hopefully, we’re going to evolve from here.”