On Thursday, the NCAA's board of directors codified what the men's basketball committee recommended last week: A new, expanded 68-team tournament. Yay! The tournament still won't be 96 teams, and that's the important thing here. At this point, any other changes to the tournament's format are pure gravy.
But what exactly will those changes be? We know one thing for sure -- the NCAA will be adding a play-in game to each of the four NCAA tournament regions, similar to the current play-in game that has two teams play in Dayton, Ohio, for the chance to play a No. 1 overall seed on the first Friday of the tournament.
Some hoped these play-in games would be slightly revolutionary in their creation. The hope was that the last eight at-large teams allowed in the tournament would square off for the right to be the No. 12 seed. That would seem to be a win-win for fans and the tournament -- the play-in round would include marquee, big-name teams with large fan bases that had to fight to get in the NCAA tournament.
If this format had been used in the 2009-10 tournament, teams like Illinois and Virginia Tech and Florida would have been playing pretty thrilling play-in games for the chance to square off against the No. 5 seeds in their various brackets. This would have been a good time.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem very likely. There are a whole range of issues with that plan, not least of which is the fact that it doesn't exactly seem fair to make a No. 12 seed play a game more than a No. 13, No. 14, No. 15 or No. 16. Instead, as SB Nation's Matt O'Brien argues, the NCAA is more likely to create an added play-in game for the No. 1 seed's opponent. The result would be four No. 16/No. 17 play-in games that look much like this year's Arkansas Pine-Bluff vs. Winthrop matchup.
That might not sound very thrilling. That's because it won't be. But it does have implications for the rest of the bracket. The NCAA isn't going to expand to 68 teams and not add teams that will drive ratings for its partners. Going to 68 teams doesn't mean four more sacrificial No. 16-seed mid-majors. It means pushing those mid-majors down the bracket and creating room for the last eight at-larges.
In other words -- brace yourself, because here come the eye-glazing numbers -- 2010's No. 13 seed becomes 2011's No. 14. 2010's No. 14 seed becomes 2011's No. 15. 2010's No. 15 seed becomes 2011's No. 16. You get the point. No 16th-seeded team has ever beaten a No. 1, but a few No. 15 seeds have toppled their No. 2-seeded opponents in the past. No. 3 seeds fall to No. 14 seeds all the time -- see this year's Ohio win over No. 3-seeded Georgetown. Traditionally, upsets get more and more common as you go down the bracket, and everyone knows how common 12-over-5 occurrences are.
The final effect is to push more and more capable teams into lower and lower seeds. This means, quite simply, more upsets.
In the service of equality, it would be nice to see more mid-major teams get automatic entries into the tourney. Big-name at-large teams like Illinois have every chance, every advantage, to prove themselves worthy of the NCAA tournament throughout the season, and when they don't, it's hard to feel very sorry for them. It'd be nice if three more small schools got chances at playing Cinderella.
That won't happen in the real world, though. In the real world, those at-larges will be shoveled into the bracket in much the same way as they currently are. But this isn't all bad. The reshuffling of the bracket will decrease the margin between the teen seeds and the teams in the low single-digits. Again, that means more upsets. And more upsets means more entertainment.
NCAA tournament expansion might be a good thing. Who knew?