NCAA mulling options for bigger March Madness

As commissioner of the Northeast Conference, Noreen Morris has a vested interest in the men's basketball tournament's new format. Twice in the last five seasons, a school from her league was sent to the so-called play-in game, and with the field expanding to 68 teams, three more games will be added to that preliminary round.

For conferences like the NEC, that's cause for some concern.

"I think if you find yourself in that game every year, it becomes a bit of a stigma and it can be used in negative recruiting and just an overall branding problem for our conference," Morris said. "You don't want the same conferences in those opening rounds every year, especially when we don't know what it will look and feel like."

Luckily for Morris, she isn't alone. Last week, the Division I men's basketball committee met to go over various options for the four opening-round games that will take place before the round of 64, and members said they are receptive to concerns that the same leagues would be penciled in for those slots year after year.

"Being stigmatized ... is probably not the best thing for the tournament or those conferences," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who is on the committee.

The NCAA has approved a 68-team format for the men's tournament, beginning next March, and there are three basic plans under consideration for the opening games.

One would slot the bottom eight teams in the tournament into the opening round and have them play for the right to move on to the round of 64 — an expanded version of the current format. Another option would put the last eight at-large teams to make the field into the play-in games. There's also talk of a hybrid plan that could include both at-large teams and automatic qualifiers.

The committee must also figure out when and where the opening-round games will be played. Morris raved about the job Dayton, Ohio, has done supporting the play-in game in recent years, but she's concerned about the travel burden on teams that advance, since it's not clear how soon the opening-round winners would have to play again.

"You're playing Tuesday and then you advance into a Thursday, how do you do that?" she asked.

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, the committee chairman, said there's a good chance the opening round will stay in Dayton to begin with, although nothing is set.

"I think for the first year, it makes sense not to deviate from the norm, and go to Dayton," Guerrero said. "If it's not optimal, we can always change what we do."

Committee members meet again in late June for a final decision on how the opening round will be structured.

The tournament expanded from 64 teams to 65 in 2001, meaning one school would be eliminated even before the event's much-anticipated first Thursday.

Since the expansion to 65 teams, a school from the Southwestern Athletic Conference has been sent to that first game five times, including last season when Arkansas-Pine Bluff beat Winthrop. In fact, a SWAC team has either been in the play-in game or received a No. 16 seed in each of the last 11 years. If the tournament's bottom eight teams are slotted for the opening-round games, the ramifications for the league are obvious.

"Our RPI is what it is, so it's going to seem to me that we're always going to be in that 61 through 68," UAPB athletic director Skip Perkins said.

Kent State athletic director Laing Kennedy, who is on the men's basketball committee, would like to avoid that scenario.

"If we could put some provisions in that any one conference, you would have some rotation so they're not always playing," Kennedy said. "Some of the historically black colleges, etc. — make sure that we take care of that like we do now, so that they're not always slotted in that role."

Guerrero said putting the bottom eight teams in the tournament in the opening round would enable the event to stay "true to the seed process" — but he understands some leagues are worried.

"We wanted to be sensitive to the fact that there would be some conferences out there that would be very concerned," he said. "There might be the possibility of us being able to create some type of rotation system."

UAPB didn't feel slighted when it appeared in the opening round this year, Perkins said. Of course, that might be because the Golden Lions won the game and it was their first NCAA tournament appearance.

"There were a lot of pros to us playing in that game — the kind of exposure we got for our school and our conference was tremendous," he said. "Actually, it was great being the only shop open that night."

That's a reaction the NCAA hopes to hear more of, now that the opening round will include more than one game. UC-Riverside athletic director Stan Morrison, a committee member, said he hopes teams won't feel relegated to the back burner if they're asked to start the tournament before everyone else.

"The first games are going to be really highlighted," he said.