Expanded field of 68 gives NCAA tournament some new moves

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The world of men's college basketball turns its attention tonight to the selection of the teams that will compete in the annual NCAA tournament. It's an exciting rite of passing, dribbling and dunking for anyone who wears baggy shorts, tailored suits or face paint.

But this year is a little bit different.

The NCAA has tinkered with its tournament by expanding the field to 68 teams, giving three more schools an opportunity to take part in "the Big Dance."

And like so many moves on the basketball court, it's somewhat tricky.

The expansion means there will be eight teams facing off in "play-in games" Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The four winners will advance into the traditional field of 64 teams that begin tournament play on Thursday.

Four of the eight teams playing in the first round will be the lowest-ranked at-large teams, those from major conferences that had good seasons but fell short of the top.

The other four teams in the first round will be the champions from the lowest-ranked conferences. The NCAA has long guaranteed these conference champs automatic berths, even though many times the teams couldn't hope to compete with those of the major conferences.

In past years, those automatic berths were points of frustration to teams that felt they were more deserving of playing in the tournament.

"In 2009, we were 10-8 in the Big Ten and had a very good team and felt like we belonged in the tournament," said Brian Siegrist, assistant director of athletic communications at Penn State University. "We ended up, from what we understood, the last team left out.

"That's part of the reason they expanded the field this year, to address those situations where there are teams that have the resume to belong in the field."

Of course, Penn State won't have to worry about getting an at-large bid if the Nittany Lions win today's Big Ten Conference championship game against top-ranked Ohio State.

Other teams will be nervously awaiting the announcements.

"I think the expansion is terrific," said Greg Amodio, director of athletics at Duquesne University. "It provides additional opportunity for teams that are very deserving. And you see it as much this year as any year. There are a lot of teams bunched up in a 'soft bubble,' and in previous years, some of those teams would have missed out."

But those are the perspectives from conferences that send at least two or three teams to the tournament every year. The smaller conferences, which only send their champions to the tournament, see it differently.

"It doesn't change our standing, unfortunately," said Andrew Toole, head coach for Robert Morris University, which plays in the Northeast Conference. "We basically have to win our conference tournament in order to be in the NCAA tournament. There's never been an at-large team from the Northeast Conference. So, for us, it really didn't change anything about the way we approach getting to the tournament."

The result is that four small-conference champions, which in the past were guaranteed berths in the field of 64, now must play an additional game to get in.

"It's not like we have a new opportunity to get to the NCAA tournament," Mr. Toole said. "For us, since they didn't increase our opportunity, I don't really think it's a positive thing for Robert Morris. I think it's a positive thing for those extra three teams that are going to get at-large bids that wouldn't have been in the tournament at all. It gives them a second chance."

The winners of the games between the small-conference champions will advance into the tournament as No. 16 seeds, following a pattern established with the lone play-in game in the past 10 years.

The winners of the at-large games, however, likely will be seeded higher, around No. 12 or so, depending on how the tournament committee members size up the competition when they meet today.

At one point, Mr. Amodio said, the NCAA was thinking that the eight teams participating in the first round should be the lowest-seeded teams. But that approach risked putting even more of the small-conference champions into play-in games.

"So they came up with the hybrid of four conference champions and four at-large teams," he said. "And I think that's a good idea. Instead of deciding between the last four teams in the field, they've said, 'OK, you guys play each other and you figure it out.' That's basically what they've done."

The NCAA -- and CBS -- have made one other tweak this year that they hope will prove to be fan-friendly. For the first time, instead of having one network televising the tournament with "live look-ins" at other games, CBS has combined with Turner Networks TBS, TNT and truTV (the former CourtTV) to show all the games in their entirety nationwide. Now it will be up to the viewer, comfortable in his recliner, to decide when to switch from game to game.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com .


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