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NCAA got it right with tourney expansion

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For months now college basketball purists have feared that adding teams to the NCAA tournament would damage one of the greatest events in all of sports.

But now that the new format has been announced, it hardly seems as if the March Madness experience will take a step back. Instead, the NCAA tournament may have improved.

On Monday the Division I Men's Basketball Committee revealed how things will work with a 68-team field as opposed to 65. Here are the basics:

• The new "first round" will feature four games featuring eight teams all vying for the right to be included in the field of 64.

• Two of the first-round games will feature the last four at-large teams granted berths.

• The other two games will pit teams ranked 65 through 68 on the overall seed list.

• The games will be played early in the week before the second- and third-round games wrap up the first week of play.

• Although the site for the first round hasn't been determined, Dayton is under strong consideration.

"We believe this format provides an extraordinary opportunity for the championship's first-round games to be quality matchups as March Madness begins," said committee chairman and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, and he couldn't be more spot-on.

Scheduling four games between the eight worst teams in the tournament – which some folks feared may happen – would've been a failure. Television ratings would've been underwhelming, and apathy may have risen from fans and media members, many of whom were loud in their criticism of expansion.

Instead, having the final four at-large teams square off in the first round will be the perfect appetizer for what may be the most anticipated weekend in college sports.

If this format were in place last season we'd have seen games between schools such as Florida, Illinois, UTEP, Virginia Tech, Minnesota and Arizona State and Mississippi State. Even though they were "bubble" squads, those were all good basketball teams that likely would've played close games had they faced one another.

That's why it's not far-fetched to say that the games between the last four at-large teams could be some of the most entertaining of the NCAA tournament.

The smaller schools come off winners in this, too. Take a poll of college basketball fans and my guess is that 70 to 80 percent of them couldn't name the two schools that competed in last year's play-in game in Dayton, where Arkansas-Pine Bluff beat Winthrop.

Under the new tournament format, those smaller schools will operate under a bigger spotlight. A few days before becoming a pinata as a No. 16 seed playing against a No. 1, schools from the Ivy League and from smaller leagues such as the Southland Conference will have a chance to shine in competitive game situations against teams of their own ilk.

And more people will be watching thanks to the inclusion of the last four at-large teams in the opening round. Fans who watched Minnesota take on Arizona State in the first game of the day will probably leave on their television for the Alabama State-Portland State showdown immediately following.

The national exposure will increase the profile for those smaller schools while providing a positive experience for the athletes. Even though this expansion was probably all about money, it's nice, for a change, to see that the guys in uniform are actually going to benefit from this, too.

This time, the NCAA got it right.

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