Last four at-large to play in first round
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.
Dayton, which had been the host site for the opening-round game, is the likely destination for the games but there could be other sites looked at for future First Four games beyond 2011, Guerrero said. When the winners would play in the second round is still to be determined but one aspect is certain: If teams meet on Tuesday they would feed into a Thursday format, and the Wednesday winners would play on Friday if the First Four is split into two days.
This is the first time the last four at-large teams will be revealed publicly. Traditionally, the at-large teams are scattered throughout the seeding process, rarely going past No. 12, making it relatively easy to identify them. Yet the committee now will formally announce the last at-large teams by putting them in the first round.
Guerrero and Shaheen said the last four at-large teams would be put on the seed line the committee decided they earned. So, this could mean that two could be considered No. 12 seeds playing for the right to play a No. 5 and two could be No. 11s vying to play a No. 6 in the second round.
In its news release, the NCAA listed the 10th seed as a possible destination for the last at-large teams, something that has occurred in past years. It is unlikely that the committee will have one team seeded 10th, 11th or 12th to avoid having teams seeded differently playing in a First Four game.
"The teams selected for these games will be like teams," Guerrero said. "We felt if we were going to expand the field it would create better drama for the tournament if the First Four was much more exciting. They could all be on the 10 line or the 12 line or the 11 line. We won't know until the seeding takes place and the principles and procedures are used and the teams are slotted appropriately."
Shaheen said the process will follow the same model used to select the previous 34 at-large teams, with the number now 37. Committee members go through a series of ballots, moving teams into the field and eliminating others by voting privately on a computer to determine the last at-large teams. The seeding and bracketing takes place once the teams have been selected to the field of 68.
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Guerrero and Shaheen said they don't anticipate a problem in accommodating the principles and procedures of bracketing, such as repeating regular-season matchups in the second round (formerly the first round) or pitting teams from the same conference earlier than a regional semifinal.
The bracket on Selection Sunday will have both teams listed for the same seed line, just like it has for the two teams playing in the opening-round game between Nos. 64 and 65 since that game's creation in 2001.
The 10-member committee spent the last two months debating how to format the larger field. The committee decided in April to increase the field from 65 to 68 with three more additional at-large teams (going from 34 to 37) at the same time it announced it had agreed on a new television contract.
Other options discussed during the committee's meeting in Chicago the last week of June were: the last eight automatic qualifiers -- the Nos. 16 and 17 seeds -- playing against each other for the right to be the 16th seeds; and making the last eight at-large teams playing for specific seed lines. The compromise was this hybrid model which Guerrero said evolved out of many discussions with committee members and among the NCAA Division I membership.
"There was no consensus," Guerrero said. "We selected a format that will break new ground. We're excited about the concept of the First Four. We think we've added value to the tournament."
The NCAA made clear it's not interested in hearing complaints from high-profile conference teams that have to play in the First Four.
"Three of the four teams that would be in these games [the two First Four games involving at-large teams] wouldn't have been in the tournament in 2010," Shaheen said. "The fact is they weren't in the tournament before."
Shaheen said the First Four should be a natural bridge from Selection Sunday to the second round of the tournament. He said the opening-round game was the only presence of the sport in years past between Selection Sunday and Thursday's first round.
Guerrero said there would be no limit as to the number of times a conference participates in one of the First Four games. Previously, the opening-round matched the two lowest-rated automatic qualifiers. That standard will still apply for the game between the last two automatic qualifiers for two of the No. 16 seeds.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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