- Jay Bilas, College Basketball analyst
This new tournament format might work out just fine -- it wouldn't be the first time a committee couldn't screw up this tournament. But the fact is, the NCAA tournament selection committee punted on what was the most fair and equitable solution and did what was in the best business interest of the NCAA tournament. And that is OK.
If it is to be 68 teams (which makes no sense out of the gate), it will be inequitable on some level unless the last eight automatic qualifiers play for the right to play the four No. 1 seeds. For television and for fan interest, the committee chose to make the politically correct choice of splitting the baby.
If there is parity, why would we worry if the last eight seeds play against each other? Well, because there isn't parity and every thinking person knows it. The last eight seeds usually are not among the top 100 teams in the nation, and nobody really cares what happens in a play-in game. That has been proved since the NCAA tournament went to 65 teams in 2001.
But populist sentiment dictates that the committee should at least make the worst four "at-large" teams suffer the same indignity as the worst four teams in the field. And that is exactly what the teams seeded 65 through 68 are: the worst four teams in the field. Yet, they get to compete for the national championship. What an indignity.
Whether the committee votes to make the worst four at-large teams play at the same time that the worst four overall teams play, we all know that the teams seeded 61 through 64 are lesser teams than the worst four at-large teams, which are among the top 50 teams in the nation. It doesn't matter what we call the four games. They are play-in games, and the rules are different for inclusion in those games.
The only sport in the world that compromises the field without pool play is the NCAA basketball tournament. And you know what? After the "play-in" games are over and the tournament really starts on Thursday, we still will have a great 64-team tournament. This decision cannot screw up this tournament. It is idiot-proof -- and thank goodness for that.
First Four: I hope the NCAA didn't spend a lot of money on legal fees to trademark this winner. First, the name doesn't make any sense relative to the Final Four. The Final Four is made up of four teams, not four games and eight teams. The First Eight doesn't make any sense from a brand standpoint. Well, sorry, but neither does this. These are play-in games, and everybody knows it, including NCAA officials and athletic directors who have complained about the stigma of playing in these games year after year.
Call it what you want. We all know what it is. We will call these games the "opening round" or the "first round" or the "First Four" whenever NCAA officials are around, but we all will call them "play-in games" as soon as they are out of earshot. If the NCAA had trademarked "Play-In Games," it would have made more money, because that is the moniker that will be used more often by the masses.
First Round: Why can't we call things exactly what they are? The NCAA wants us to consider these new games the first round, but that's just silly. A "round" commonly connotes a completed course of activity for all participants. Any teams exempted from playing in the "first round" (or the play-in games, for those not into fooling yourselves) would therefore be deemed to have a bye from first-round play.
So are we to embrace the fiction that eight teams are playing in the first round of the NCAA tournament and that 60 teams are awarded byes? Or, in the purest form, are we simply talking about four play-in games? I choose to live on planet Earth and therefore cannot call this the first round. Unless NCAA officials are within earshot.
The "You're Lucky To Be In" Theory: This beauty, most recently put forth by new Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, is so ridiculous as to be laughable. The theory goes that the last four at-large teams should feel "lucky" to be in the field at all and therefore should not be able to complain about having to play on Tuesday or Wednesday (never mind that one of the last four at-large teams would have been in this past season when it was only 65 teams).
So, the 10-person selection committee -- which, if you believe the NCAA, is made up of the most prepared and knowledgeable basketball people it can put forth -- clearly orders the best teams in the field, and four of the teams seeded 10 thorough 12 are "lucky" to be included? So at-large teams (which usually are teams ranked in the national top 50) are lucky to be in the field, while teams seeded 61 through 64 (which traditionally are ranked outside the national top 100) "deserve" to be in the field and compete for the national title and not have to play in a play-in game? Interesting logic there.
Oh, I forgot. The "play-in game" can be a stigma. The last four at-large teams are lucky to be there. We all are lucky to watch it. We all are lucky to be alive. I think I will buy a lottery ticket with all of this luck surrounding the tournament. But think how unlucky the teams seeded 9 or 13 must be. They avoided the play-in game and avoided being called lucky.
Lucky? We Had More Than 30 Games: If the last four at-large teams are lucky, why do we even let them in? Why not just keep the field at 65? Are there only three other good teams worthy of inclusion in the NCAA field in this age of "parity"? We have more than 30 games to determine the best teams in the country. We need four more games on top of that? Please. How many games do we need to make a determination? Isn't it more likely that a team can get lucky in a one-game scenario than over a 35-game schedule?
Television Compromise: Already, some are saying this format will give us "compelling" games. Let me get this straight. We wouldn't have had compelling games if the NCAA did the common sense thing of pitting the last eight seeds (teams seeded 61 through 68) against each other in the four play-in games? So doesn't that really mean we will have two interesting games and two games nobody cares much about?
And let's be honest -- how compelling could they be if they are being put on truTV? Right now, the most compelling shows on truTV are "Las Vegas Jailhouse" and "Operation Repo." The first and last time I watched the former CourtTV was when O.J. Simpson was on trial.
A few more unrelated thoughts ...
Enough On Pro Development: Kentucky's John Calipari has seen several of his players stroll up on the stage and shake hands with NBA commissioner David Stern. He has been praised as being a master "developer" of NBA talent. Please. Enough. There is no developer of NBA talent out there, and we should stop pretending there is. Coaches like Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun and Calipari aren't "developers" of NBA players. All are great recruiters and coaches, but none can take raw material and make that player into an NBA pro.
Calipari is a great recruiter and has recruited great talent coveted by the NBA, but the majority of those players would have been high draft selections if they had come straight out of high school and never went to college. You never hear about pro coaches "developing" All-Stars or Hall of Famers. It is fine for coaches to sell the number of pros that have come out of their programs, and there is no denying that the best coaches help great talents get better.
But if we give credit to Calipari for "developing" pros over the past few years, what was he doing all those other years? Did he slack off in development or simply forget to do it? Sorry to derail the narrative, but it doesn't work that way.
Arms Race: Why is it that whenever we want to denigrate something, we use the term "arms race"? Now, when the NCAA is looking to ban the early offer of a scholarship, it is being termed an "arms race." Huh? How can it be an arms race when there are only 13 scholarships available for use? The "arms" are all the same, and they are of the same number.
Do we really care if a coach offers a young player a free education, especially when the acceptance of the offer is nonbinding on the player? This is hardly the equivalent of a predator driving up in a van and offering candy to a toddler to get in. It is the open offer of a scholarship or a free education. How is that so bad? And if there is a risk the player won't pan out because it is early in the development process, why shouldn't a coach be allowed to take that risk once in a while? No coach will do that all of the time. This is nothing more than overkill because the NCAA doesn't like the perception of it.
One More Thing: The term "arms race" has traditionally been used in the realm of athletic facilities. Spending on facilities has been termed "unsustainable." According to critics, these facilities are not needed and simply cost too much. Maybe so. But I have been on campuses all over the country over the past several years and I have seen a similar "arms race" with regard to academic facilities.
I have seen libraries, lounges, eating facilities, dorms and other buildings that have been built or renovated when there was no "need" other than to provide a better environment for students to pursue excellence and to attract new students. The spending on academic facilities is similarly "unsustainable," yet you hear nothing from the complainers regarding academic spending. And you never hear the term "arms race" with regard to nonathletic facilities, which dwarfs athletic spending.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.