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68 is a difficult number to work with

The poobahs of the NCAA are gathering this week to discuss the nuts and bolts of the new 68-team basketball tournament, and they’ve got a challenge on their hands.

After meeting in May, the [10-member Men’s Basketball] committee asked NCAA schools to offer opinions on the recommended expansion to four opening-round games, one in each region. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith confirmed there were three options on the list — making the eight lowest seeds in the tourney play in the opening round, making the last eight at-large teams in the field play or a combination of the two.

The only thing clear-cut heading into the meetings, which start Sunday, is this: There is a wide split between what the big schools and small schools want.

Teams playing in conferences such as the Southland, like [UTSA athletic director Lynn] Hickey’s Roadrunners, or the Southwestern Athletic, a league made up primarily of historically black colleges and universities, don’t want to be pigeonholed into playing an extra tourney game each year. Power-conference schools, which usually take most of the 34 at-large bids, think they should avoid the opening-round games, too.

So Smith and Hickey must figure out how to play both advocate and arbiter.

“My responsibility is to the groups I represent, so I need to be very well informed about what they want,” Hickey said.

I’d say the fairest solution is the combo plan – make the four bottom seeds, and the four last-in at large teams do the play-in games. The main problem with that, of course, is that it slots those at large teams in as 16 seeds, where they would otherwise likely have been no worse than 12 or 13. But it’s also not fair to essentially consign eight conferences to the minor leagues and deny them a guaranteed opportunity to play a team they’d never get to play otherwise. This to me is another argument in favor of the 96-team tournament plan that seemed to be on track earlier this year. An opening round with four games, much like the current play-in game, doesn’t feel like it’s part of the tournament as a whole. It feels more like an afterthought, or an extra obstacle to playing in the main event. There’s little drama, no chance of a Cinderella story, and likely very little audience for it. By contrast, an opening round with 64 teams (as would be the case with NCAA-96) or 32 teams (as you’d have in an 80-team tournament) feels like the real thing, with a diverse set of teams and much higher stakes as some of those teams will have aspirations for going deeper into the tournament. I understand the NCAA’s desire to take a baby step on tournament expansion, but now that they have done so and seen that what they got out of it was a baby improvement but a grown-up problem, I hope they’ll move up their schedule for considering when to take the logical next step.

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