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How I Think The NCAA Should’ve Formatted Its “First Four”

July 12, 2010

The NCAA released its plan for how to handle the recently-expanded NCAA Tournament that now features 68 teams. The last four “at-large” teams will face off against one another for the final two at-large spots, and the last four automatic qualifiers will square off to fill the final two 16-seed slots.

The games will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday following Selection Sunday.

There’s already a good bit of debate about how it should be handled. Some feel the last eight automatic qualifiers should play each other, but that punishes that set unfairly. Some feel the last eight at-large teams should play one another, but again, that punishes at large teams #30-#33 who previously would’ve never had to play in a play-in round.

This compromise is the most fair blend to appease both of those camps, but I still feel like it leaves some room for improvement.

I say do this: For the “First Four,” as the NCAA is branding the first four games of the tournament, have the last four at-large teams square off against the last four automatic qualifiers. The winners of these games receive 12-seeds. The worst of the at-large teams would face the best of this group of automatic qualifiers, the #3 AL would face the #2 AUTO, and so forth.

How it helps the at-large teams: It gives all four of these teams–which frankly stand a far better chance of advancing into tournament than any of the automatic qualifiers–a better chance of advancing into the first round of the tourney. Under the current system, two of the at-large teams are guaranteed to not make it to the first round.

How it helps the automatic-qualifiers: Instead four teams squaring off against #1 seeds–a game a #16 has NEVER won–you instead give these four teams a shot against teams they stand a much better chance of defeating. And whereas before, where the winner of the 64/65 “play-in” game would get paired up with the top overall seed on two-days’ rest, any automatic qualifier that advances will be granted a 12-seed as a reward. There they would face off against a much more reasonable 5-seeded opponent. They’d still be at a disadvantage, having already played two nights prior, but wouldn’t be mere cannon fodder for the top #1 seed.

The objections would come from the automatic qualifiers that get seeded 14th and 15th, most likely. They’d still be faced with a daunting foe in the opening round, whereas the would-be 16s would potentially face a 12-seed and then a 5-seed to get to the second round. But we’ve seen 15-seeds take down 2-seeds and 14-seeds take down 3-seeds before. The 14- and 15-seeds aren’t being asked the impossible.

The last two 16-seeds in the first round, however, would be taking on the top-two #1s on two-days rest–further increasing the chances we’ll likely never see a 16 topple a 1. (Though in fairness, the quality of the top two 16-seeds will improve under either system, so one could argue it actually IMPROVES the probability of that happening.)

To me, this proposed system comes with additional added benefits.

All four of the “First Four” games will have broader television appeal. Instead of folks only tuning in to see the last four at-large teams play, there will be nationwide appeal to see if any of the automatic qualifiers will advance past their weak at-large opponent to earn that coveted 12th seed.

Also, if we assume that the four at-large teams will beat their automatic-qualifying opponents (a tenuous assumption), then the overall quality of the teams in the first round will have improved on paper (based on comparative RPIs and whatnot).

Here’s how the “First Four” would look under my idea (AL-Final At Large Team; AQ-Final Automatic Qualifier):

Tuesday night:
6:00 pm #1 AQ vs. #4 AL for 4th 12-seed slot
8:30 pm #4 AQ vs. #1 AL for 1st 12-seed slot

Wednesday night:
6:00 pm #3 AQ vs. #2 AL for 2nd 12-seed slot
8:30 pm #2 AQ vs. #3 AL for 3rd 12-seed slot

As such, the 28th-best (of 31 total) AQ stands the best chance to advance, but would have to face off against the best 5th-seed in the first round. If the worst automatic-qualifier were able to somehow defeat the 34th-best at-large team, they would face off against the worst 5th-seed, improving their chances to advance to the second round. I would think either of those two scenarios would make for interesting television the Thursday of the first round when one of these AQ teams advances.

Am I nuts? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and how to best tweak this system, or if you like it how it is.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 6:18 pm

    It’s an interesting idea, one that would pay off in a stronger field of 64 (as you note) more often than not. But I don’t like extending the inequity deeper into the bracket like you are here. If one of those AQs pulls the upset and advances into a 12-seed slot, one lucky 5-seed receives an enormous gift. It’s just too disproportionate in terms of strength when you’ve got a 12-in-name-only that’s one of the worst teams in the field, while the rest of the 5s are struggling against far more evenly-matched opponents. To me that’s too big of a ding on the tournament’s integrity.

    Plus I want to watch those four at-large teams pummel each other.

    • July 12, 2010 10:44 pm

      Good stuff, Steven. I, too, am looking forward to the four at-large teams playing one another, but I have zero interest in seeing the four worst automatic qualifiers essentially play two versions of the same play-in game now that no one cares about.

      Your point about damaging the competitive playing field in the 12/5 matchups is good one. Since the 28th AQ would be the most likely to advance, would it make more sense to pair the winner of that matchup against the worst fifth seed instead of the best? That should in theory close the level-of-competition gap between the 5/”12-in-name-only” somewhat (though I haven’t looked back at previous tourneys to see how much stronger the 28th AQ is versus the 31st).

      As Adam Gold mentioned on Twitter, expanding the tourney to 68 and creating this “First Four” made-for-TV “event” pretty much disrupted the competitive balance any way you slice it. The 13, 14 and 15-seeds will all have to play one fewer game to advance the same distance in the tourney than the two weakest 12-seeds, which seems messed up. And since the two weakest 12s that advance will be playing their second game in three days (and possibly their third in five days if they played in their conference tournament final), they’re coming into the first round “pre-weakened.” So would it make a huge difference to the 5-seed if they were playing a weakened 12 versus a charged-up 12-in-name-only? Maybe not as much as we might expect.

      I don’t know. Given the selection committee essentially dictates the fairness of each bracket with how they seed and place teams in each region (See also: Duke, 2010), the competitive balance of the tournament will likely always be debatable all across the bracket. This seems like a way to improve the television properties of all four games of the “First Four” while also giving the would-be 16-seeds a much more realistic shot of winning a game–perhaps more–in the tourney rather than merely serving as a walk-through for the 1-seeds.

  2. July 12, 2010 6:18 pm

    This plan is reasonable and well thought out. So the NCAA will never do it.

    The reason the NCAA went with its plan is TV. TNT and CBS aren’t ponying up big money to get three more play-in games featuring Stephen F. Austin and Montana State.

    • July 12, 2010 11:03 pm

      Agreed on TV driving this move (and every move the NCAA has made over the last 20 years or more). But my thing is, why not create four games featuring four beatable at-large teams paired against four hungry automatic-qualifiers, instead of creating two games of at-large teams and essentially two throw-away AQ games? Sure, the at-large games would be pretty evenly matched and competitive (yay!) but the other two games? Why should I care? They’re between teams I’ve never heard of and will only be set up to fail against the two #1 seeds they’ll draw.

      I sure hope TNT/TruTV/whoever plans to air these games does so wisely. If they put both of the at-large games on the same night, forget me (and most of the rest of the TV viewers) from watching “The Battle To See Who Sucks Least” night.

  3. Scott permalink
    July 14, 2010 11:13 am

    there really is no good way to do it, which is why they shouldn’t have expanded it in this fashion. man up and expand it to 96 or don’t expand it at all. those should have been the two choices. this is just a clustered mess since now, I have to have all the NCAA brackets in by Tuesday instead of Thursday morning. it’s going to throw a wrench in everything!!!

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