Forde: Making the best of a bad idea

In the NCAA’s ongoing effort to make the best of a bad decision, it unveiled a 68-team basketball tournament Monday that has some appeal.

Unfortunately, the appeal wanes when you remember that there was no good reason to expand the field at all.

We don’t need more games. We don’t need more mediocre teams in the tourney. We don’t need more system tweaks designed to benefit the schools from big-money conferences while further marginalizing the little guys.

This has been the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee’s approach under outgoing chair Dan Guerrero, who is the athletic director at UCLA when not wearing the hat of March Madness Great Compromiser. Twice now, Guerrero’s group scared us into thinking it would ruin the NCAA tournament, then delivered something not nearly as terrifying.

It scared us with the specter of 96, then delivered 68. It let us fear a banishment of eight small-conference champions to a four-game play-in round of no intrinsic value, then delivered a hybrid format combining both at-large teams and small-school automatic qualifiers.

So it hasn’t been all bad.

Then again, it hasn’t been all good.

Keep that in mind -- the NCAA was willing to mess with perfection, and that’s still a mistake. But if it is going to force-feed us more Big Dance, it at least is making it semi-tasty.

I like the idea of the last four at-large teams playing each other for two spots in the 64-team bracket. I can warm up to the idea of some watchable, ratings-friendly basketball on the first Tuesday of the tourney -- or maybe the first Tuesday and Wednesday. (The NCAA, for all its deliberation and delays in announcing this, still hasn’t given up firm facts on when and where those games will be played.)

I’m glad they didn’t simply create a four-game play-in round matching the eight lowest-seeded teams in the entire tournament. I even like the trademarked “First Four” moniker.

But here’s what I would have liked more: The last eight at-large teams playing for four spots. That would produce either a reasonably interesting quadrupleheader, or a pair of reasonably interesting doubleheaders. And it would have removed the small-conference champions completely from playing in the Stepchild Round.

As it is, we will go from two low-profile league champs to four now involved in the play-in round. While it’s nice to win an NCAA tourney game, beating a fellow pipsqueak and diminishing your chances against a No. 1 seed isn’t the ideal.

So if you’re scoring at home, we have another net gain for the big boys: three more of them will get into the tournament, and two more small schools will be dispatched to Dayton (or wherever they play these First Four games). They should be celebrating at perennial bubble dweller Virginia Tech, but not so much on campuses in the MEAC, SWAC and Northeast Conference.

What remains to be seen is how much the First Four will impact what happens in the round of 64. No winner of an NCAA play-in game has ever pulled a first-round upset – but that’s largely because the winner was a No. 16 seed playing a No. 1.

Now that will no longer be the case.

It stands to reason that a team which wins the battle for a 12-seed on a Tuesday night will be at a disadvantage traveling to a new site to play a more rested No. 5 seed on a Thursday -- and as even half-hearted bracketologists know, those 5-12 games are where upsets often are found.

Will those upsets become less common? If so, it will diminish one of the great charms of the tourney.

The first round’s immense popularity is largely tied to upsets. If the NCAA has lessened the quality of that round in order to modestly beef up the opening Tuesday, that’s a net loss for basketball fans.