Commentary: Thumbs Down to New NCAA Tournament Format


Today, the NCAA announced how it will integrate three more teams into the NCAA basketball tournament. While the format has changed, connoisseurs of March Madness will be able to continue with their simple office pool brackets. With 68 teams now in the field, there will be four games played prior to the start of the 64-team format. Of the four games, two will pair up the last four automatic qualifiers against each other, and the other two will pair the final four at-large teams. The winners will be placed into the 64-team bracket on the seed line they were originally assigned. 

Problem 1: Play-in games cheat teams out of a tournament experience.

For four teams, the new system will rob them of the hype and experience of actually playing in the NCAA tournament. Yes, you receive a bid to play in the tournament, but having to play-in is an unfair punishment to four teams who won’t be present at one of the eight first and second round sites. Either let these teams in or relegate them to the NIT. Having attended the first round of the tournament, there is a certain atmosphere and excitement about being in the tournament that won’t be present in Dayton.

Problem 2: These matchups won’t be attractive.

If this new format had been instituted last year, the NCAA would have given us the beautiful gift of seeing Winthrop-Arkansas Pine Bluff, which was the play-in game, East Tennessee State-Lehigh, UTEP-Virginia Tech, and Mississippi State-Dayton. Not exactly must watch television. If the NCAA is going to make this work, they should pair up mid-majors against power conference teams. Even then, its hard to imagine a scenario in which these matchups will seem meaningful or even intriguing.

Problem 3: The games will be played on truTV.

Turner is looking to build up truTV by placing some NCAA tournament games on this unknown channel. However, I dare someone to list the number of this channel. Look, I once watched San Jose State play Utah State in football on Altitude. My DirecTV package is very expansive, but I have absolutely no idea where to find this channel. It is much easier to sell and market these games if they were on a mainstream channel. In the end, nobody is going to start watching truTV in the long run just because a few tournament games are on there. This wreaks of a poorly conceived gimmick.

Problem 4: Upsets become harder.

Oh you’re a thirteen seed looking to sneak up on a four seed a la Murray State? Sorry, but you’re going to have to play a game before your opponent and wear yourselves out. In addition, coaches will have to use up their time scouting and scheming for the play-in game. That means they will have less and less time to design the perfect game plan to pull off a memorable upset. March Madness lives by the mantra of improbably victories and Cinderellas, but the expansion makes the glass slipper more difficult to put on.

In another attempt to grab money, the NCAA expanded the tournament by three teams. After examining it from every angle, the decision seems rather inexplicable. The play-in game was a bad idea to begin with. Adding three more? No thank you. The NCAA seems to think it took a step forward, but at best it stayed put. While it created some buzz today, there certainly won’t be any excitement about the three extra games. Some believe this mini-expansion is just a tiny step towards the 96 team format. Whatever the case, it is a framework that seems to have only added three more meaningless, mediocre games to a thriving system.