No decision yet on opening-round format

July, 2, 2010
The NCAA tournament selection committee met earlier this week in Chicago, but won't announce its decision of how to format the new 68-team field until sometime next week.

However, the 10-person committee (as well as the two new members coming on board in the fall) was presented with a thought on how to handle the opening-round games.

According to an industry source, the committee was at least given the idea of what it would be like for new broadcast partner Turner, which will handle the four opening-round games as part of its new 14-year partnership with CBS to televise the tournament beginning in 2011.

If the tournament has opening-round games on Tuesday or Wednesday that involve at-large teams, then it would certainly give a buzz to the start of the tournament. The opening-round games would have more stature for Turner.

The committee considered two scenarios that involve at-large teams. One of the scenarios has the last eight at-large teams pitted against each other for seed lines. So theoretically there could be two teams on the 10 line in the West, two teams on the 12 line in the South, two teams on the 11 line in the East, two teams on the 13 line in the Midwest. On Selection Sunday, the corresponding opponent would at least know the two teams to prepare for in its Thursday or Friday first-round game.

The other scenario is a hybrid approach in which there are two games involving at-large teams -- 10 versus 13 and 11 versus 12, for example -- with the winners taking the highest-seed line. The other two opening-round games would involve the four 17-seeds against each other. The two winners would move into the 16 lines that would be vacant once the teams moved up in that region to replace the losers of the at-large opening-round games. This scenario would surely cause plenty of confusion for those filling out the bracket.

But according to the source, the committee -- as has been the case in many of the discussions -- was adamant that the integrity of the bracket shouldn't be compromised for the sake of television. If the committee sticks to that premise, there is a strong possibility that the option for the opening-round games will be to pit the four 16-seeds versus the four 17-seeds for the last spots in the first round. This would be a true seeding of 1 through 68 and would mean the teams rated No. 61 to No. 68 would be playing an opening-round game.

If the committee goes with the latter scenario (16 versus 17), there will be a perception that the real tournament begins on the following Thursday or Friday at the first-round sites. That unfortunately is the prevailing theory with the current opening-round game setup between No. 64 and No. 65.

But an industry source said CBS/Turner didn't buy the rights (worth an estimated $10.8 billion) based on any opening-round rating number. The overall ratings are what matter most, not just one day, and certainly not just the opening round. But clearly it would help Turner's cause if the tournament had more opening-round drama from major-conference teams rather than from automatic-qualifying leagues.

One idea that has been floated around is to rotate which conferences participate in the 16 versus 17 games. But that would also be jeopardizing the integrity of the bracket. If the same league does get in there every year, that's the league's problem. Teams can always win nonconference games to improve their overall ratings. With that said, the committee has been reluctant to put the two Historically Black Colleges and Universities conferences (SWAC and MEAC) against each other in the opening-round game. Those two conferences have yet to meet in Dayton.

Turner and CBS won't complain publicly if the opening-round games are 16 versus 17. But if the committee wanted to enhance the appeal, then taking Saint Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia's idea could work. According to Saint Joe's coach Phil Martelli, DiJulia suggested at the A-10 meetings in May that putting the games at historical arenas around the country could generate even more interest. So I wouldn't be surprised if the committee looked for an alternative way to make the four opening-round games special.

One thing that hasn't been provided is a clear answer as to why the committee even expanded to 68. Was it to avoid going to 96? Was it to just give three more teams a chance at the NCAAs? And if so, why wasn't it announced in conjunction with how it would be formatted? The NCAA is methodical in its decision-making process, so it shouldn't come as a shock that the decision to expand was followed by a two-month-long discussion on gathering ideas for the format, followed by two committee meetings on the subject -- one in Indianapolis and one in Chicago.

This committee could be making a dramatic change to the format of the tournament if the last at-large teams are put into a play-in setup or if it decides to essentially endorse the status quo plus three more opening-round games. Frankly, if the at-large schools have to play their way in, there shouldn't be any complaining since under the previous format they wouldn't have been in the field anyway (ask Virginia Tech, Mississippi State or Illinois what they would have wanted in 2010).

If the choice is the final eight automatic qualifiers, then they shouldn't squawk either during a tough economic time, when there are perceived threats by the elite, money-making schools to start their own organization if one day there are four superconferences. Keep in mind, teams that reach the tournament get a financial unit and teams that win a game, even an opening-round game, get an extra unit share that can be worth more than $200,000 (paid out over a six-year period).

Now if the committee chooses a hybrid option, be prepared for confusion about how to fill out a bracket. It would certainly make life tougher for those who run tournament office pools.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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