The New Format: What Is It?
The new NCAA Tournament format is out. You can read the details here. It's a little confusing, but in short there will be four play-in games. Two games will involve the final four at-large teams playing each other, and the other two will involve the four worst automatic bid teams. The latter part is easy: we'll now have six teams that are 16 seeds. The top two will automatically play 1 seeds. The other four will be paired into two games, with the two winners going to play the other two 1 seeds. As for the at-large teams, the Selection Committee will identify four teams as the "last four at-large teams", which will be paired into two games.
Let's say that the last two at-large spots are an 11 and a 12 seed. If that's the case then we'll have five 11 seeds and five 12 seeds. Two of the 11 seeds will play each other, with the winner getting a 6 seed. Two of the 12 seeds will play each other, with the winner getting a 5 seed.
Why This Format?
I looked to all of the major sports websites looking for somebody explaining the reason for this format, and none had the right answer. You can read, if you want, the takes of ESPN, CBS and Sports Illustrated (you can find more yourself, I just wanted to throw a few links out there). I had cynically projected a solution like this a few weeks ago.
It's obvious to me that the NCAA wants to expand the field to 96 teams. Nobody thinks 68 is a number they want to stay at forever. The key is, how can they make the public want 96 teams? The answer is: make them watch the play-in games. Make fans get used to watching seven rounds instead of six. If you have eight 16 seeds playing each other in the play-in games nobody is going to watch. They had to include the final at-large teams into this to make people watch, to get people used to seven rounds, and to eventually get the public ready for 96 teams.
What's The Downside Of This Format?
There are a bunch of downsides. For one, it will somewhat ruin the best part of the first round: the 5/12 games. I've spoken many times about why the 5/12 games are always so close, and why there are so many 12-over-5 upsets compared to what you'd expect (you can read my extended thoughts here, here and here). The fact is that most of these at-large play-in games will involve 12 seeds, meaning that most years two of our 12 seeds will be coming in exhausted from a play-in game in another city that happened just two or three days previous. And remember (if you read those links I just posted) that it's the at-large 12 seeds that pull off most of the 12-over-5 upsets. So even if only half of the 12 seeds are handicapped this way, it's going to affect a majority of potential upsets.
The other downside is that it ruins the simple elegance and symmetry of the bracket. Not only the simplicity of two rounds a week for three weeks, but also the fact that same seed will have different paths. We'll have 12 seeds that play 5 seeds, and 12 seeds that have to open against another 12 seed. And each year we'll have a different number of 12 and 11 seeds. It makes it difficult to put together brackets, or bracket compilation sites like The Bracket Matrix.
And, of course, it means for certain that we're on an inexorable slide to a field of 96 teams. There's no way around that now. I doubt we'll even make it 5 years before people are clamoring for a new format, and we'll probably expand again within the next decade. The number of quality basketball teams is expanding, but it's not expanding fast enough that a field of 96 won't mean a bunch of very mediocre teams getting to Dance. It makes the Tournament less exclusive.
What Are The Benefits?
It's hard to think of one. The one upside is the one I'm mad about, because we're being played by the NCAA: the fact that we'll now have an extra set of enjoyable games between Selection Sunday and the round of 64. No casual fans watched the 64/65 play-in game we've had the past few years, but fans will tune their televisions to watch the two play-in games involving at-large teams. But as I said, we're being played. They want us to not only enjoy these games but to get used to a seventh round. It won't be long before we have 32 play-in games, instead of four.
To me, this is depressing. I don't like the new format, and I don't like how the "expert" writers out there are all praising the move either oblivious to, or complicit in, the obvious move to 96 teams that this foreshadows. But it is what it is, and college basketball is still a wonderful sport, and the NCAA Tournament will still be great to watch. So let's roll with the punches and enjoy it for what it is.