Early returns: Coaches approve of format

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Beleaguered by worry of tournament expansion and exhausted with conversations about conference expansion, coaches finally found something they could get their arms around in this summer of upheaval -- compromise.

News that the NCAA selection committee decided on a hybrid format for its expanded field of 68 was greeted with almost universal approval as the Elite Youth Basketball League Finals at Peach Jam got underway here on Monday.

Certainly everyone has their own self-interests -- coaches at the smaller schools wished winning the conference tournament title meant a little more, while coaches at power leagues argued that their résumé was greater than that of your typical 16-seed -- but recognizing that there is no recipe to satisfy everyone, the coaches I talked to conceded this was the best of a difficult situation.

“It’s probably a good compromise," said Central Michigan coach Ernie Ziegler, echoing the sentiments of many. “This gives an opportunity for the low- to mid-majors, but also the teams on the bubble as well. Nothing will be perfect, but this is good."

Coaches at the non-power conferences admitted they were worried.

They know who brings in the big bucks, the fans and the television viewership and worried that the NCAA would err on the side of the big schools and turn the four opening-round games into low-major play-in games.

“I thought they would protect those seventh-, eighth- and ninth-place teams from the major conferences," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “I personally don’t think rewarding an eighth-place team is what the NCAA tournament should be about. The last four in should have to work a little harder, so I think this is the best of both worlds.’’

Fran McCaffery knows most all of those worlds. As a coach at the College of Charleston, he saw the view as a low major. As the boss at Siena, he got a picture as an emerging mid-major. And now at Iowa, he’ll be reminded of what life is like among the pack in the power leagues -- much like when he was an assistant at Notre Dame.

From his various vantage points, McCaffery thinks the committee finally got it right.

“I always thought it should be the last four in,’’ he said. “I think if you’re one of those teams, you ought to just be happy to be in.’’

Ah, but therein lies the rub.

No one is naïve enough to think this is going to eliminate the annual event known as post-Selection Sunday caterwauling, where coaches whose programs were left out argue they should have been let in.

In fact, this could add more work for the complaint department.

Fielding the NCAA tournament always has been a subjective process; now the committee has added more to its burden -- determining which teams are the last four in and will therefore be subjected to an impossible schedule.

After nodding their heads in approval of the new format, coaches had two immediate questions -- where and when will these additional games be played?

“So you could play in your conference tournament on a Friday or Saturday, find out you’re in [the NCAA Tournament] on Sunday and have to travel and play on Tuesday?’’ Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “That’s pretty tough.’’

And then Dixon paused, offering up an addendum that coaches would be wise to remember come March.

“But it beats the alternative,’’ he said.