How will the First Four affect your bracket?

There's been plenty of talk about the NCAA's new hybrid opening round. Much of this talk has centered on the real-world applications of the solution: Is it fair? Do mid-majors get jobbed? Are the last four at-larges being treated unfairly? Even if a tenuous offseason consensus is reached on the hybrid format, these questions will dog us up to and past the first tournament to utilize the new format. There will always be questions.

But there is one other question that, when you think about it, is just as important to the perceived success of the NCAA tournament as any other: What happens to my bracket?

Sixty-eight teams isn't exactly 98; the tried-and-true bracket pool format won't be facing complete anarchy in 2010. There are some changes here, though, and how fans decide to incorporate them will be a major factor in whether the marginal NCAA tournament expansion is viewed as a success.

Today, Rush The Court listed a couple of options for incorporating the new expansion format into bracket pools. As the RTC boys see it, there are, essentially, three solutions. Fans can:

  1. Make the play-in -- ahem, opening round -- games a required part of the bracket. This would move the deadline to submit brackets up to the wire on Tuesday, scratching off a major chunk of the time most people use to submit their brackets in the few days between the selection committee's announcement and Thursday's first-round games.

  2. Treat the play-in games like play-in games. Which is to say, ignore them altogether.

  3. Use a hybrid format. (Now where have you heard that before?) Bracket managers could award, say, half a point for players who submit their First Four picks and a completed bracket by an earlier Tuesday deadline. The rest of the field could ignore those games and merely pick the bracket as they always have, at the minimal risk of losing a few points in the larger calculus.

There are consequences of each. Pushing the full-bracket deadline up to Tuesday would limit the amount of time fans have to submit their brackets. This could lower the agonizing many analysts suffer through four days of bracket insanity, forcing pickers to trust their instincts and go with their gut rather than changing picks back and forth. ("Do I really want Baylor in the Final Four? I'M DYING HERE!!") Depending on your mental strength, this is either a positive or a negative.

Nor does it feel completely right to ignore the play-in games altogether. Two of the First Four games will feature teams many fans will want to watch, and watching those teams can only be enhanced by having them factor into your bracket. But two of those games will feature No. 16/17 teams from conferences like the MEAC and the SWAC, and attempting to predict those outcomes -- and have them affect the integrity of your bracket, too -- sounds less than ideal.

The hybrid solution is a good start, but here's how I'd improve it: Set two deadlines. If you join a bracket pool, you have one deadline for the opening round. Then, if you need it, you have another day and a half to fill out the rest of your bracket based on your opening round picks. The First Four are low seeds, so it's unlikely they'll factor into your Final Four anytime soon, but having the opportunity to look at the matchups in the No. 4-No. 13 games for potential upsets seems only fair. Everyone likes to nail the first round.

What about scoring? Bracket pools already use a system that awards more points for correct picks as the tournament goes on. The opening round should be no different. Make each game worth a half a point. The opening-round shouldn't cripple your bracket in any meaningful way. But since it's here, we might as well include it, right? More fun that way.

Given the way bracket pools are run now -- on the Interwebs -- the rules will have a lot to do with what major sites like this one end up choosing as default options. The two-deadline format isn't the least complex, so maybe it won't catch on quite as easily. But it totally should.