NCAA's 68-team bracket is predictably terrible

Let me ask you a question: What is the purpose of the men's basketball NCAA Tournament?

If you correctly answered, "To fairly determine a champion," congratulations! You're officially smarter than the NCAA, which today announced one of the silliest formats you can possibly think of with regards to its new 68-team bracket.

When the newly expanded field was announced, most assumed the "First Four" -- a nice little bit of symmetry devised by the NCAA -- would be comprised of the final eight teams in the field. This makes the most sense; after all, since the purpose of the tournament is to determine a champion, it's only logical that the eight worst teams in the field should have the most difficult path to the championship by having to play one extra game to win the title, to say nothing of having the "reward" of playing the four best teams in the tournament.

But there was a segment of the population who thought it would be "cool" to have the last eight at-large teams fight it out for the right to get into the tournament. Some thought this was a good idea because it would prop up the value of the conference tournaments of the smaller schools; some thought it would just make for better theater.

Faced with two choices, the NCAA did what it almost always does: Came up with a stupid solution by trying to please everyone.

In making two of the games between small school automatic qualifiers and two of the games between at-large qualifiers, the NCAA is trying to get the best of both worlds (driven I'm sure, at least in part, by the desire to keep its new television partners happy).

"The teams selected for these games will be like teams," [tournament selection committee chairman Dan] Guerrero said. "We felt if we were going to expand the field it would create better drama for the tournament if the First Four was much more exciting. ...

"There was no consensus. We selected a format that will break new ground. We're excited about the concept of the First Four. We think we've added value to the tournament."

Exciting? Yes. Valuable to TV partners? Certainly.

Foolish? Without a doubt.

Those at-large teams that will be playing each other? Likely to slide into the 12-seed line. (Although they apparently could be as high as 11- or 10-seeds.) The idea behind a seeded tournament is that a No. 1 seed should have an easier road to the championship than everyone else in its region, the No. 2 easier than everyone but the No. 1, etc. So how can you say that teams that are rated up to four seeding lines higher than other teams should have a harder road to a championship -- by needing to win seven games rather than six -- than lower seeded teams? That goes against the very foundation of a seeded tournament.

You might say that it doesn't really matter, since 12-seeds don't ever make it to the Final Four or win championships anyway. That's not even remotely the point. (Although, if that's the way you feel, you should be in favor of contracting the tournament to 32 or even 24 or 16 teams.) Should a No. 5 seed (or No. 6 or No. 7!) get the benefit of playing a tired team in its first game? And what if the No. 12 team wins? Should a No. 4 seed get the benefit of facing a team that's now playing its third game in five days?

Beyond that, why do some No. 5 seeds get this advantage, while others don't? How do you decide who gets the lucky draw?

That's the problem with going for the "theater" of having at-large teams play. You're screwing with the very nature of a seeded tournament. And if you're going to do that, you might as well just not have a seeded tournament at all, because this sort of an arrangement just devalues the whole endeavor.

NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen -- the guy on the bad end of this gem -- said those at-large teams forced to play their way into the tournament will have nothing to complain about: 

"Three of the four teams that would be in these games [the two First Four games involving at-large teams] wouldn't have been in the tournament in 2010," Shaheen said. "The fact is they weren't in the tournament before."

Oh, well then! That makes it all better! It's most definitely OK, since three of those four teams should just be happy to be there. Oh, and sorry about that, fourth team who would have already been in the tournament -- you're just collateral damage. Better luck next year!

I'm sure it will comfort them to know that they're bringing "excitement" and "value" to the tournament, rather than actually getting a fair shot at winning a championship. Which, again, is the whole point of having a tournament in the first place.

Whatever. If the NCAA wasn't half-assing something, it wouldn't be the NCAA. Congrats on living down to your low bar, fellas.

Besides, it might just be making much ado about nothing in the long run, anyway. Raise your hand if you really think the NCAA is stopping at 68 teams. That's what I thought.

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