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Jeff Eisenberg

The four play-in games should be between at-large hopefuls

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When the NCAA announced it was at least temporarily scrapping its 96-team expansion proposal this morning, it ensured that the tournament will be just as exciting as ever the next few years.

Not to get greedy or anything, but now the men's basketball committee has a rare chance to make the tournament even better.

Instead of creating three more play-in games to decide which four No. 16 seeds get ritually sacrificed to the four the No. 1s, what if the NCAA uses the impending expansion to 68 teams as an excuse to get creative with the tournament's structure? What if the four play-in games each became matchups between bubble teams to decide the final four at-large bids in the field?

It's probably too radical a proposal for the NCAA men's basketball committee to adopt when it convenes this summer, but members should consider the benefits before they quickly scrap it.

A matchup between Lehigh and Arkansas Pine Bluff for the right to play top-seeded Duke in next season's first round probably isn't going to be a huge ratings draw. All-or-nothing games between Florida and Illinois or Minnesota and Virginia Tech this past season, however, probably would have generated plenty of interest.

If the NCAA decides to add play-in games between eight of the worst teams in the field, the major drawback is that four deserving teams who won their conference tournaments won't get to experience the real March Madness. Some might argue that the play-in games count in the record books too, but try telling that to the team who lost to a fellow no-name squad in front of a few dozen fans in Dayton.

When the Mountain West splintered from the WAC in 2001, the NCAA opted to keep the number of at-large teams at 34 in order to ensure that the number of power six conference teams in the field didn't drop.

If NCAA officials decide to continue with that line of thinking when they meet this summer, it won't be the end of the world. If they switch it up and create four at-large play-in games, however, it will make a great tournament even better.

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