What's the bracket arithmetic this year? A total of 31 conferences will place an automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament field. As the tourney also requires no fewer than 34 at-large selections, there will once again be an opening-round game between the teams rated No. 64 and No. 65 in the field. That contest will be held March 16 in Dayton, Ohio, with the winner advancing to a Friday-Sunday subregional as a No. 16 seed.
Why is that team listed from such-and-such conference? Teams listed in ALL CAPS followed by their conference name are the current league or RPI leaders (for the preseason bracket, the consensus postseason champion is listed). Teams from multiple-bid conferences, or teams that project to earn an at-large bid regardless of their league position, are listed without conference affiliation.
What is the RPI, anyway? And why do they use it? RPI stands for Ratings Percentage Index, a tool of the NCAA in assembling championship fields in a host of sports. The RPI essentially combines winning percentage and schedule strength into a single formula to help compare teams from different conferences and regions. It has been used as an aid to the NCAA men's basketball committee since 1981. The formula was adjusted in 2004-05 to diminish the value of home-court victories while emphasizing road performance.
Who can't go where? Syracuse (East), Utah (West), Houston (South) and Rice (South) cannot be placed in their respective regions if they qualify or are selected for the 2010 NCAA field. Each school is hosting a regional final this season. Tulane (New Orleans), Providence, San Jose State, Canisius (Buffalo), Niagara (Buffalo), Jacksonville, Marquette (Milwaukee) and Washington State (Spokane) are subregional hosts and would also be bracketed away from their respective sites.
Will teams allegedly play closer to home again this year? For the ninth time, the NCAA men's basketball committee will not predetermine the regional designation of each of the eight subregional sites (what it calls the "pod" system). This gives the committee increased flexibility to reduce travel for teams and fans, as well as create more local interest at subregional sites that may not be traditional basketball areas. For example, the subregional site in Providence could send its winners to Salt Lake City (West Regional) instead of, say, the East Regional in Syracuse, if the committee thinks it makes more geographic sense for the teams involved.
Aren't there a ton of other bracketing rules to consider? Yes, and if you have three or four hours and some spare brain cells available, you can read them all in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship handbook. Otherwise, you'll just have to trust me. One change worth repeating for 2009-10 is that teams from the same conference may now meet as early as the second round of the tournament if said conference has more than five participants. Previously, teams from the same conference could not meet before a regional final. This provision is only to be utilized if all other bracketing options have been exhausted or if a ninth team is selected from a given conference.
Didn't they re-seed the field the past few years? And won't that mess up my office pool? Clearly the most important questions of any season. The answers are "not really" and "definitely not." In a new procedure that began in 2004, the tournament committee makes public its internal ranking of the four No. 1 seeds, and their respective regions are then paired according to those rankings (No. 1 versus No. 4; No. 2 versus No. 3). No longer will the regions be paired in a rotating fashion (e.g., East versus West, South versus Midwest) for the national semifinals. The idea is to prevent a matchup of the nation's two best teams prior to the national championship game if, as was the case two years ago, all four No. 1 seeds advance to the Final Four. Fortunately, since these determinations are made on Selection Sunday, the bracket -- and thus every "amusement-only" contest in the land -- is unaffected once the 65-team field is announced.
What else is new? A 32nd conference, the Great West, begins play this season. It carries no automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but several members -- Chicago State, NJIT, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley -- are eligible for at-large consideration. Three other members -- Houston Baptist, along with Division I newcomers North Dakota and South Dakota -- have not yet completed the Division I transition period. The same goes for two more Division I newcomers, Seattle (actually a Division I returnee) and SIU-Edwardsville, who join Cal State Bakersfield, Longwood, North Carolina Central, Savannah State and Winston-Salem State among the shrinking list of Div. I independents. Finally, Atlantic Sun members Kennesaw State and North Florida have completed their transition period and are now eligible for postseason play.
Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.