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New NCAA tourney format: shocking development?

Shocked it is.

The NCAA has announced the set-up for its 68-team field that will be unveiled on Selection Sunday in March 2011. By now you know there will be two types of play-in games - dubbed the First Four. The four lowest ranked teams (S-Curve 65-68) will pair up to play for 16-seeds in two regions. The last four at-large teams will also be paired with the winners falling on a 10-12 seed line against a pre-determined opponent in the other two regions.

Is it a good compromise? Depends on your perspective. If you want to improve opening-round TV ratings (and the NCAA just renegotiated its deal with CBS and Turner for broadcast rights) then matchups between the final at-large selections makes some sense. More people would likely watch a Virginia Tech-Illinois game (two teams that just missed last year) than would watch three more pairings of lower-level conference champions. That said, here’s why I’m shocked by the decision ...

1) The NCAA must tell us its final four at-large selections - How many Selection Committee chairs have danced around this very question? Despite a more open approach to the selection process in recent years, there remains a behind-closed-doors element to actual bracket development. Only recently have we been privy to the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed and rankings of the other No. 1s. Same for the final two teams on the S-curve who were paired in the 64-65 game. Now, us fans will know exactly who the last four at-large teams are. Didn’t think that would happen. Will the actual S-curve rankings be next?

2) A team either deserves an at-large bid or it doesn’t - Selecting teams has been - and should be - the NCAA’s most important task. As former Committee Chair C.M. Newton once noted ... a team can play its way out of a bad seed, it can’t play it’s way out of not being selected. But once a team is deemed worthy of an at-large bid, should that team then be told it’s not yet in the actual bracket? Congratulations, you received an at-large bid. All you have to do now is win one more game to play in the main tournament that starts on Thursday. Of course, you can say the same thing for the automatic qualifiers, but that’s the rub of a 65 or 68-team field.

Overall, a 68-team field is far better than a 96-team set-up. And three at-large candidates who would otherwise miss the NCAA Tournament will now be playing in the newly touted First Round. But the only way to create a bracket based on team rankings (s-curve) is to seed the field 1-68 and pair the lowest eight seeds with winners on the 16-seed line. Doing that actually creates a stronger bracket because the 16-seeds would be more like 15-seeds - meaning a better chance for upsets and a stronger overall field. Thought that was the goal. Then again, when money talks people listen. Even the NCAA and its member schools - who, by the way, shouldn’t complain if they are one of the at-large opening-round participants, because they could be at home.

Now it’s time to move on ... an updated 68-team bracket projection (for fun and practice) on it’s way at Bracketville. The NCAA Tournament will always be the most exciting three weeks in sports. Have a different opinion? Send a rebound.