The 10-person NCAA Men's Basketball Committee will be meeting in Indianapolis this week to decide how to expand the NCAA Tournament from 65 teams to 68 teams.
The explansion is already a done deal ... the debate is over how to incorporate the extra three teams.
Under last year's format, the tournament included 31 automatic qualifiers and 34 at-large teams. Under the new format the 2011 field will include tha same 31 automatic qualifiers, but the number of at-large teams will incease to 37 teams.
Under the old format, the two lowest seeded teams in the tournament faced each other in Dayton each year for a play-in game (although the NCAA refused to call it that).
It's almost certain that under the new format will feature four "play-in" games. But nothing else is certain. When the expansion was approached last spring, the NCAA asked schools and conferences to submit ideas for how to deal with the expansion. I don't think it's oversimplifing to say there are basically two ideas that most schools support:
(1) Simply have the eight lowest seeds in the tournament play each other to determine who will be the No. 16 seeds and get to face the four number ones.
(2) Have the eight lowest seeded at large teams play each other -- maybe to determine the No. 12 seeds (that's about where the lowest seeded at large teams usually end up).
The bigger schools and conferences advocate the first plan -- their argument is "We should remain true to the seeding process".
Of course, the lowest seeded teams are ALWAYS the champions of small conferences -- the SWAC, the MEAC, the Big South, etc. They are the leagues stuck playing in Dayton every year and they don't like it.
The smaller schools advocate the second plan. Their argument is that the expansion was to benefit the big leagues (which will gobble up all the extra at-large spots) and they should not ask the smaller conferences to take a hit so that Virginia Tech and Mississippi State (two teams that probably would have benefited last season) can play in the NCAA instead of the NIT.
Can I offer three factors that I rarely see mentioned in the media when it comes to this issue?
First, the play-in game (whatever you call it) is financially favorable to the teams (and conferences) which participate. The NCAA awards tourney shares based on participation (one share for each conference team in the field) and for wins (one addition share for each victory per team leading up to the Final Four). Since No. 16 has ever beaten a 1, the play-in game has offered teams a chance to win an extra tourney share since the NCAA treats the play-in game as a real game and it's just as valuable in financial terms as a Sweet 16 win.
Don't discount the value of that -- some small conference doubles its NCAA payout every year because of the play-in game -- and that's big money in those leagues.
But is the extra money make up for the humilation of participating in a play-in game? Well, the fact that the small conferences want to escape it tells you that. And the fact that the big conferences don't want to get involved means that they do see the added revenues as that much of a plus.
The second issue is TV. Over the years, ESPN has televised the play-in game from Dayton to dismal ratings -- more akin to the NIT going on at the same time than to the NCAA bonanza that CBS has two days later.
It's unlikely that having four Belmont vs. Jackson State games will do anything for the ratings. But if the four play-in games involve big name schools from big time conferences (as the last eight at large teams would be), then the NCAA's TV partners would have a better product to sell.
The third issue is logistics. Right now, the play-in game is Tuesday night of tourney week with the winner getting to play a true first-round game on Friday -- always.
But if the four play-in games produce four No. 16s, then two of them would probably have to play on Thursday. Can you see that -- play a killer game on Tuesday night, fly straight to, say, Greensboro for Wednesday's mandated NCAA practice and then play the No. 1 seed on Thursday? It would be the same for two of the four No. 12 seeds, if the committee goes that way.
I don't know how you get around that -- schedule two play-in games on Monday? Have all four No. 1 seeds at Friday/Sunday sites? Awkward either way.
Of course, it's always possible that somebody comes up with a third option that would satisfy both sides -- a hybrid of the two plans (in which four lower seeds play for the last two No. 16s and the four lowest at large seeds play for the last two No. 12s)??
Still, the debate ought to be interesting -- too bad it will be behind close doors.