Mar 13, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes bench wear t-shirts that say P-MAC in support of coach Fran McCaffery

NCAA Tournament: Let’s Fix the First Four (and Name it Correctly)

Mar 15, 2014; Stony Brook, NY, USA; Albany Great Danes players celebrate after defeating the Stony Brook Seawolves in the championship game of the America East college basketball tournament at Pritchard Gym. The Graet Danes won 69-60.Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 15, 2014; Stony Brook, NY, USA; Albany Great Danes players celebrate after defeating the Stony Brook Seawolves in the championship game of the America East college basketball tournament at Pritchard Gym. The Great Danes won 69-60.Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

It was a great day for college basketball fans nearly four years ago, when the NCAA decided to forego plans of expanding to what would have been a severely watered-down, 96-team men’s Division I college basketball tournament.

Instead, the NCAA’s mega-deal, worth $10.8 billion over 14 years, thankfully limited expansion to 68 teams while allowing fans to watch any game of the tournament in its entirety, as TNT, TBS and TruTV joined CBS in televising the most popular American sports event outside of the Super Bowl.

Moving from the prior field of 64 teams to 68 improved the tournament by including opportunities for four additional bubble teams to prove their tournament worth where such a thing should be decided — on the basketball floor instead of in a committee room (just ask VCU, which went from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011).

But in doing so, the NCAA missed a golden opportunity to create the perfect tournament from the outset.

Change the Name

For starters, the name is all wrong.

If the Final Four refers to the last four teams in the NCAA tournament, why should the First Four denote the first four games of the tournament?

Since eight teams are playing in the First Four, the naming of that portion of the tournament should be more in line with the regional finals, which is of course known by its other name, the Elite Eight. So, let’s abandon the First Four name in favor of something along the lines of the Early Eight.

Automatic Qualifiers Shouldn’t Have to Play Their Way in Twice

Far more importantly, the NCAA only got it about half right when it comes to who plays in the First Four Early Eight.

Regardless of the conference, no matter how weak the team is, a conference tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Yes, even you, 13-19 Cal-Poly.

Maybe the Mustangs from the Big West don’t belong in the tournament record-wise, but the system is what it is.

As long as the tournament accepts automatic qualifiers before filling out the rest of its field with at-large bids, conference tournament winners (or in the Ivy League’s case, the regular season title winner) should never have to play their way into the round of 64 twice.

That’s what the conference tournaments are for. If you win one of those (or if you finish in first place in the Ivy League), you should have already earned your way into the round of 64.

Cal-Poly and SWAC champion Texas Southern shouldn’t have to beat each other for the right to play top-seeded Wichita State in the Midwest Region; nor should Albany (the America East tournament champion) and Northeast Conference tournament champion Mount Saint Mary’s have to face each other for the chance to play the tournament’s overall top seed, Florida, in the South Region.

And if Cal-Poly is considered the tournament’s lowest seed, it should be in Florida’s bracket, not Wichita State’s.

When Cal-Poly cut down the nets in Anaheim last weekend, the Mustangs should have automatically received a 16 seed and a date with Florida; and the same for Texas Southern, Albany and Mount Saint Mary’s as 16 seeds, to oppose the other three top seeds. They won their respective league tournaments and deserve that chance without having to win another game first.

If other teams need to be shifted around to make that work along with all of the other seeds (to get the right teams playing the initial four games of the tournament), then so be it.

Further, teams at the 16-seed level (like Cal-Poly, Texas Southern, Albany or Mount Saint Mary’s this year) shouldn’t get credit for adding an NCAA tournament win to their respective school histories by beating other teams of their own ilk, when 16 seeds in the past never had that type of opportunity. That recognition should be reserved for the first time (and any other time thereafter, if it ever happens) such teams finally knock off a one seed.

Let the Last Eight At-Large Teams Battle Kick Things Off

Plus, what would make better television, or for that matter, an opportunity to sell more First Four Early Eight tickets?

Albany versus Mount Saint Mary’s and Texas Southern against Cal-Poly?

Or two additional games like Iowa versus Tennessee and North Carolina State against Xavier?

Let the teams which should have already secured their rightful places in round of 64 be rewarded with such without having to play their way into that round a second time (even if that might normally mean being sacrificial lambs for one seeds; that would happen anyway, even after winning a “play-in” game).

And let’s also see the last eight teams selected as at-large teams prove they belong in the round of 64 on the court, against each other, the way it should be. The losers of those games go home (or, they could even be awarded consolation prizes of being named the one seeds in each region of the NIT, if that tournament were pushed back just a few days); and the four winners of those First Four Early Eight at-large showdowns should always fill out each of the four 12 seeds, to go against the five seed in their respective regions.

Skip Dayton and Play the First Round at Second-Round and Third-Round Sites

Then, there’s just one last thing to make it the ideal start to the NCAA tournament.

Although the travel didn’t seem to bother VCU on its run to the Final Four from Dayton, Ohio  three years ago, there are often just as many First Four Early Eight empty seats in Dayton as there are for some of the other early-round tournament games at other venues.

Rather than make teams in the First Four Early Eight head to Dayton and then to another site two to play two days later, simply send each of the final eight at-large teams selected, directly to the same location as whatever five seed they might play, should they win their first game. If the team wins, it sticks around to play the five seed in the second round, the same way the second-round winners stay in the same town to play during the third round, two days later.

Fix it and Forget It

Make the aforementioned changes, NCAA, and never speak of expansion or other similar changes again. And then we’ll all get to witness the perfect NCAA tournament each year from start to finish.

Tags: 2014 NCAA Tournament Albany Great Danes Cal Poly Mustangs College Basketball First Four Iowa Hawkeyes March Madness Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers N.C. State Wolfpack Tennessee Volunteers Texas Southern Tigers Xavier Muketeers

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