The final four at-large teams and final four automatic qualifiers in the newly minted 68-team NCAA men's basketball tournament field will meet for the right to enter the traditional 64-team draw, tournament selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero announced Monday.
The "First Four" will be played either the Tuesday or Wednesday after Selection Sunday. The winners of the four games will advance to what will now be called the "second round" on either Thursday or Friday. The newly named third round -- with 16 games -- will be Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the tournament -- regional semifinals (Sweet 16) and regional finals (Elite Eight) -- will remain as they have been, as will the Final Four, which is set for Houston in 2011.
The games will be televised on TruTv (formerly CourtTV), which is available in 93 million homes, said NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, who manages the NCAA tournament. CBS, Turner, TBS and TruTV are in their first year of a $10.8 billion, 14-year television agreement. ESPN had carried the tournament's opening-round game in previous years.
So yes, starting in 2011, you'll be watching the highest level of NCAA basketball on the same channel that once hosted Nancy Grace and is currently home to such riveting televisions shows as "Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura," "Las Vegas Jailhouse" and "Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel."
Once you've digested that, here's what the new format means for the NCAA Tournament.
It can be assumed that the final four automatic qualifiers means "16 seeds." In the 2010 tournament, that'd have been some combination of Lehigh, East Tennessee State, Vermont and Arkansas-Pine Bluff/Winthrop playing for a chance to tangle with a one of two one seeds.
The final four at-larges (the real additions to the tournament) will play for a seed that the selection committee decides both teams would deserve in winning. Could be a 10, could be a 12, as of now, it's variable. For the sake of discussion, let's say the top three seeds in the NIT would have been in in 2010, and the lowest seeded at-large team in the 65 team setup would have played an extra games. That would mean three of Virginia Tech, Illinois, Mississippi State and Arizona State would have had a chance to play their way into the 64-team now "second round" field along with someone like a Minnesota or a Washington.
Not really a big deal to anyone, save for the two mid-level seeds that are going to go 2-3 days without knowing who they'll be playing in the "second" round and the poor saps that forget to fill out their brackets in the office pool by Tuesday.
Hard to really get worked up about this either way. It doesn't really hurt the Cinderella factor, as most of the mid-majors with a realistic chance of going anywhere will still be safe. At the same time, it brings the revenue of having a few more bigger name schools involved in the tournament. The difference is negligible in terms of the fan experience. It's all $$$.
All in all, college basketball fans have avoided the potential disaster of a 96 or more team tournament, but if this 'First Four" thing works out, don't be surprised to see the NCAA suits slowly build toward a large number that most college basketball fans don't like.