Answering That All-Important Question: What About My Bracket?

Posted by rtmsf on November 18th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is an RTC contributor.

When the format of the new 68-team NCAA tournament bracket was announced back in July, we wondered exactly what type of effect this would have on our bracket pools. With just one opening round game in the past ten years (since the expansion of the tournament field from the sensible 64 teams to the odd 65 team field in 2001), that opening round game in Dayton was safely ignored by the vast majority of the college basketball fanbase. But when the NCAA announced that the First Four would not only include a couple of games between the four lowest-seeded automatic bid earners, but also two games between the last four at-large teams, ignoring the opening round games for bracket pools no longer seemed to be a viable option. With the odds of one of those final four at-large teams advancing not only past the opening round game, but then beating their higher seeded opponent in the second-round game (the Thursday/Friday set of games, which in the past was considered the First Round, but is now officially the Second Round) being fairly reasonable, we wondered how some of the larger online NCAA bracket pools would handle this situation. The early answer? Continue ignoring the opening round games.

Why Would We Ignore This?

“We’re not set in stone, but we’re leaning towards not using those opening round games, similar to what we’ve done in the past,” said Jason Waram, Vice President of ESPN Fantasy Sports. “Basically, the player would get both of those two teams (in the opening round game) for the price of one.” In other words, if you fill out your bracket prior to the completion of the Opening Round game, and you wish to select one of the participants in the opening round game to advance, say to the Sweet 16, you would get both teams. As an example, using RTC’s preseason bracketology projection of St. Mary’s/UCLA as one of the four opening round games, if on the Selection Sunday evening I wanted to fill out my bracket and pick UCLA to advance to the Sweet 16, I would get credit for a correct pick if either St. Mary’s or UCLA advanced to that round. If you were filling out your bracket after the completion of the opening round games, obviously those outcomes would be known so only the winner of that opening round game would be an available option.

Given that many casual college basketball fans who fill out an office pool are used to the tournament proper starting on Thursday morning, asking players to pick just four of the games early could have caused confusion for many.  “The current format is something that people have gotten used to,” said Waram. “There is a lot of analysis that goes on between Sunday night at 7 pm eastern time right up until tipoff on Thursday, so giving the users that same opportunity to use all of that time and to get their picks in while introducing them to what the new tournament format is going to be is important.” Given that ESPN wants as many people as possible to compete in these games, keeping the requirements of the players simple is a priority. “You want to keep the fan experience simple, keep it easy and keep it fun. And the more games that people have to pick and the shorter time that people have to pick those games, the more drop off there is going to be.”

CBS Fantasy Sports has confirmed that this is their working model as well. “Although our plans have yet to be finalized, the likely scenario is that CBSSports.com won’t count any of the four play-in games,” said a spokesman. “If you fill out a bracket before those games are played, you will see both teams listed on the #16 seed line vs. the #1 seed.”  Both ESPN and CBS Sports are quick to point out that nothing is currently set in stone, but as of now, this is where they’re headed. “We’ll definitely re-assess where we are and what our colleagues within the industry do, and we’ll still talk about this as we lead up to the tournament; we’re not set in stone, but that’s definitely the way we’re going right now, to approach it like the opening round game from last year,” said Waram.

Don't Crumple It Yet -- Your Loser Might Make You a Winner!

The fact is, there is no really great solution to this problem. If you bump the deadline up until tipoff of the opening round game, you probably lose many of the casual college basketball fans who are used to having their office pool ready to go by Thursday morning. If the opening round games are merely optional, that adds a whole other level of complexity, not only to the programming of the game, but to the casual player’s perception of the bracket game. But is simply ignoring the opening round games a great solution? Of course not. To expand on our St. Mary’s/UCLA example above, if I pick UCLA to go to the Final Four, and they lose in the opening round game and their opponent miraculously advances to the Final Four, does it make any sense that I should get rewarded with a bucketful of points for essentially making an incorrect pick? This isn’t merely wild speculation, as George Mason, one of the last at-large teams to make the field in 2006 and awarded with an 11-seed, proved that it is possible for a bubble team to get hot and go on a deep run in the tournament. If the field had been 68 teams in 2006, GMU would almost certainly have been slated for one of those opening round games. Clearly, this solution is not the perfect one, but the fact is, as was the case when so many decisions were made regarding our beloved tournament over the past several months (the 68-team format, the makeup of the opening round games), this may just be the best of a bad set of choices.

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After 10-For-10, Dayton Goes Four For (First) Four

Posted by jstevrtc on September 9th, 2010

For the past ten years, the city of Dayton has been host to the NCAA Tournament’s Play-In Game (though the NCAA doesn’t really like that moniker). Affectionately known as the “PiG,” it wasn’t exactly a destination to which teams aspired after a long regular season and a conference tournament championship. If your team got into the dance, you wanted to be in the dance, you know? Despite the city’s admirable support of their Flyers — the student section in UD Arena was one of the loudest we encountered last season — among college basketball players, Dayton became a place you hoped you weren’t sent by the bracket-makers. Even though the NCAA treated it and paid schools the same as any other appearance, you didn’t want to have to play into the Tournament. You wanted to be in the Tournament.

The NCAA, the citizens of Dayton, and the people who work at the arena, however, have brought every ounce of dignity and elegance they could muster for the PiG, and they’ve done it each of the past ten years. There was never anything close to a half-hearted effort on their part. Despite the reputation of the PiG, Dayton made teams, fans, and media feel welcome. The seats were always filled.  The people of Dayton embraced the PiG. On Thursday, the NCAA confirmed that Dayton will be the site for all four of the first round games — the First Four —  that were created earlier this summer when the NCAA increased the tournament field from 65 to 68.

UD Arena, In Its Usual Sold-Out State

To this, we say bravo. It’s a great, appropriate reward from the NCAA to Dayton, and we hope they extend this beyond 2011. Dayton would get four NCAA Tournament games every year, quadrupling any economic spike they’ve enjoyed by hosting the PiG for the last ten years. As for the games themselves, two of them will involve the last four “at-large” teams that gained admission to the dance, and two of them will involve the last four automatic qualifiers. They’ll take place on Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday, which means that there is no longer that seemingly infinite wait from Sunday night to the tournament’s start on Thursday (yeah, we know, the PiG was on Tuesday). You get Selection Sunday, then Monday to crank out your brackets. The first round begins on Tuesday with the start of the First Four.

There is one final question, though, and that’s who plays when. Will the last four at-larges play on one night and the 16-seeds all play on the other? We communicated with David Worlock, the Associate Director of the Men’s Basketball Championship, who told us that “was still to be determined,” but the NCAA’s contract with CBS and Turner Sports allows for “maximum flexibility” in terms of scheduling the games. If TV is making the ultimate decision on this, we figure that they’d be getting maximum eyeballs each night by pairing a 16-seed game first with a “marquee” at-large battle second, using, say, the old 7/9:15 PM ET game windows. Nothing wrong with that.

It’s fun to be talking about this kind of stuff. And it’s going to be a fun way to start the Tournament, and we know the city of Dayton will get behind it.

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NCAA Ticket Lottery System Under Fire

Posted by rtmsf on July 19th, 2010

Last week a federal appeals court in Chicago reinstated a lawsuit against the NCAA that takes a direct shot at its lottery-based process for distributing the oh-so-coveted Final Four ducats each year.  Many fans who have never attended (or tried to attend) a Final Four may not know this, but depending on the size of the venue, the NCAA offers a good number of tickets for sale to the general public every year.  Next year, with Houston’s Reliant Stadium (and its 71,500 seats) hosting the final weekend, the NCAA is offering 20,000 seats for sale to the public.  A lottery process determines if your application is one of the lucky few.  From the NCAA website:

Only one properly submitted application per individual/household will be accepted for inclusion in the NCAA’s ticket selection process. The NCAA will use a random, selection process to determine successful Men’s Final Four recipients in July 2010.  Those individuals selected to receive tickets will be notified by the end of August.   Individuals not selected to receive tickets will receive a refund of the full application deposit amount by August. Men’s Final Four tickets may not be offered as a prize in a promotion, sweepstakes or contest, or auctioned for fundraising purposes unless authorized in advance by the NCAA.  (emphasis added by RTC

These Will Cost You a Pretty Penny (+ Processing)

The rub of this lawsuit is that the NCAA also requires a nonrefundable $6-$10 processing fee with each application, regardless of whether you “win” or “lose” the tickets.  So if you are one of the many unlucky applicants and your check isn’t fortuitously chosen from the hopper, you will only get a refund for the value of the tickets, not the processing fee.  Due to this nice little Ticketmaster-esque add-on of a few extra bucks to play the game, this “lottery” for Final Four tickets (where everyone loses even when they win) might just be illegal in the state of Indiana. 

The class-action suit (of residents from New York, Arizona and Oregon) argues that the state government of Indiana (where the NCAA is HQ’d) is the only entity within the Hoosier State who may lawfully run a lottery, and as such, the NCAA’s money-making fee structure is in clear violation of the law.  The Court of Appeals decision agreed in stating that people who apply for Final Four tickets are not aware that they are gambling (“pay to play”) when they submit an application, and the NCAA could have avoided this whole mess if they’d simply refunded the processing fees to those who did not win tickets. 

The next phase of the case will be discovery and another chance in front of the District Court, but it seems from our viewpoint that the NCAA is probably going to have to pay something on this whether as part of a large settlement or a judgment against them.  By refusing to refund the processing fee, there’s just something that doesn’t pass the sniff test here, and undoubtedly the Court of Appeals had that in mind in sending the case back.  Going forward, however, it seems as if the NCAA could make a very simple change and resolve this.  Either eliminate the processing fees of those who, you know, don’t actually get processed (the “losers”), or take away the processing fee completely and just add $10 to the face value of every ticket.  Will markedly fewer people submit applications if the lower-level seats are $210 instead of $200; or $190 vs. $180 for uppers?  Not likely. 

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A Little Summer Madness For Your Basketball Jones

Posted by rtmsf on July 16th, 2010

It’s the middle of summer and hotter than hell pretty much everywhere, and college basketball feels a long way away.  Luckily, CBS College Sports has realized that some of us will watch great college hoops year-round if given the opportunity, and they’re using the next couple of weeks to replay the entire 2010 NCAA Tournament for people of our ilk.  They started this feature last week, but there are still plenty of great games on tap.  Here’s a taste of some of when some of the better games will be on — set your Tivo accordingly…  (although make sure to check the complete listings because most of these games and many others are televised multiple times over the next week).

Um, Why Does Summer Madness Have a Football Field in the Background?

Saturday July 17

  • 4:30 pm – St. Mary’s vs. Villanova (2d Round)
  • 6:30 pm – Murray State vs. Vanderbilt (1st Round)
  • 11 pm – Northern Iowa vs. Kansas (2d Round)

Monday July 19

  • 6 am – Old Dominion vs. Notre Dame (1st Round)
  • 12:30 pm – Michigan State vs. Maryland (2d Round)
  • 6:30 pm – Xavier vs. Pittsburgh (2d Round)
  • 9 pm – Texas A&M vs. Purdue (2d Round)

Tuesday July 20

Wednesday July 21

  • 6 pm – Butler vs. Kansas State (E8)
  • 11 pm – Tennessee vs. Michigan State (E8)

Thursday July 22

  • 12 pm – Baylor vs. Duke (E8)
  • 2 pm – Butler vs. Michigan State (F4)
  • 6 pm – Butler vs. Duke (Ch)

Friday July 23

  • 8:30 pm – Wake Forest vs. Texas (1st Round)
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The New NCAA Tournament — We Can Live With It

Posted by jstevrtc on July 12th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences and an occasional contributor.

The NCAA got around to announcing “The Decision” regarding the layout of the now 68-team tournament and specifically the makeup of the competitors in the four “play-in games” today, and the end result?  Punt.

Getting the terminology out of the way first, these games are officially no longer part of the Opening Round, nor are they “play-in games” (not that they ever were). They now make up the entirety of the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, otherwise known as the First Four. Those games that get played on Thursday and Friday? Those are now the Second Round, with the weekend games now the Third Round, with the winners there still advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.

We knew before today that there were three main options that the NCAA was considering: the final eight at-large teams matching up, the lowest eight automatic qualifiers matching up, or some combination of the two. That last one, that’s what we got. And you know what? That’s probably the best decision.

The NCAA dropped back and punted, here -- but the resulting field position isn't that bad.

If the NCAA had chosen to send only the lowest eight qualifiers to these games, there would have been numerous problems, not the least of which would be a continuation of the idea that those first four games aren’t really part of the NCAA Tournament. The teams that advance from one-bid conferences like the MEAC, SWAC, American East and Big Sky (to name just a few of the usual suspects) would battle it out in Dayton in relative anonymity for the right to advance to their chance to get killed by a one-seed, while your typical college basketball fan would ignore the whole thing. In the process, sure, the teams involved would have a better chance at winning a game in the NCAA Tournament and thereby earning themselves an extra share of the proceeds from the tournament, but once the “actual” tournament started, there would be four less automatic qualifiers sticking around for their chance to get on national television and test out their slingshot against Goliath. Then there’s also the fact that after spending $10.8 billion on the rights to the tournament, the first four games of the package would be a total wash for the television networks, stuck broadcasting games like Mississippi Valley State against Northern Arizona to a national television audience of almost four digits.

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NCAA Tournament Gets Hybridized

Posted by jstevrtc on July 11th, 2010

The First Four starts it, the Final Four ends it.

We’ll have a more in-depth discussion on this later this evening, but the new format for the 68-team NCAA Tournament has just been announced.  This article by ESPN’s Andy Katz describes how the NCAA is going with what people call the “hybrid model.”  The last four at-large teams will play each other for the right to get into the main draw, and the last four automatic bid teams will do the same. They’re calling it the “First Four,” or the new official first round.  The seed line will be determined independently for each game, meaning that two teams may be playing for the right to snag a 11-seed and play a six, and another First Four game might have two teams battling for a 12-seed to play a five, and so on.

There will now be no speculating as to who the last four at large teams into the Big Dance are — you’ll know who they are by their presence in one of the Tuesday/Wednesday games.  Unfortunately, there won’t be any “mixing” of the automatic qualifiers and the final at-large teams.  As aforementioned, the at-larges will play each other and the automatic qualifiers will play each other, so you won’t get that small-conference tournament winner relishing their chance to knock off a BCS-conference team who’s among the last four at-larges.  And, interestingly, after several years of seemingly downplaying the importance of a team’s RPI, it’s certainly important now, because that is the instrument that will be used to determine the lowest-rated automatic qualifiers.

The NCAA goes with the hybrid model. We're still evaluating this...

The First Four games will be broadcast on Tru TV, so you better check your cable lineup to make sure you get it.  Also, according to Katz, there was no early indication that the games would be moved from Dayton, the traditional site of all previous play-in games, though we expect that’s where the discussion will move to, now.

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What Should the NCAA Do With Its Four Little PiGs?

Posted by rtmsf on May 4th, 2010

This has been discussed repeatedly since the late April announcement that the NCAA Tournament would be moving to a 68-team design beginning in 2011, but we’ve yet to come across a piece that outlines all of the iterations that the new four-PiG format might take.  Hashing it out on the phone with The Kiff (a longstanding member of the Cult of 64) last weekend, we ultimately settled on two major bones of contention — who gets to play in the four play-in games, and how do you structure it so as to maximize interest, revenue and bracketing?  We’ll discuss each of these questions in turn, but first, it’s interesting to read a quote from one prominent member of the NCAA Selection Committee for insights as to what may or may not be on the table here.  Laing Kennedy, the Kent State athletic director who will finish up a five-year term as a member of the NCAA Selection Committee, has this to say about it:

Going from 65 to 68 means four first-round games. Our committee, when we meet in May, will look at some models on how to bracket that. For example, you can have two afternoon and two night games in Dayton, or two games at two different sites.  But the big question to be decided by the committee is which teams should play those play-in games, and how the winners will be seeded into the field.  Speaking individually, I would look at the last eight, and rewarding the AQs [automatic qualifiers].  Those would be highly competitive first games. But those are things we have to look at in May.

Additionally, Greg Shaheen, the NCAA Senior Executive VP who got lit up by the media in the week leading up to the Final Four, said during a radio interview with Doug Gottlieb recently that all options are on the table with respect to logistics but one of the primary considerations of the committee in structuring the new games will be to remove some of the stigma from them.  A noble endeavor, indeed.

How to Avoid the Dreaded Stigma?

With the hope that reasonable minds ultimately will prevail, here are our thoughts on the matter.

Who Plays In It?

This is the part most fans care about, and with good reason — they want to know whether as standard practice they can continue to ignore PiG Tuesday.  As it currently stands, roughly 99.9% of America* fails to so much as recognize that there is a Tuesday night game ostensibly involving NCAA Tournament opponents.  Only the truly anal among us wait until Wednesday to fill out our bracket on the ridiculous off chance that the winner of the PiG is the “right” matchup to give its corresponding #1 team trouble (and you know who you are).  So let’s cut right to it.  For the last ten seasons, there have been only four groups of people who care about this game.

* unscientific sampling of the three guys walking around the office hallway

  1. #16A’s fans, players and families.
  2. #16B’s fans, players and families.
  3. Overly nervous fans of the corresponding #1 seed waiting on an opponent for Friday’s #1/#16 game.
  4. The good citizens of Dayton, Ohio, who keep attending this thing year after year.

Just about six weeks ago, we saw this played out in real time as the “Opening Round” of the NCAA Tournament between Arkansas-Pine Bluff-Winthrop competed directly with the first round of the NIT and several interesting matchups that included UConn-Northeastern, UNC-William & Mary, Texas Tech-Seton Hall and NC State-South Florida.  From that night’s ESPN coverage to the trending Twitter topics and later to the Nielsen ratings, it was painfully clear that on this mid-March evening, the NIT games were the preferred matchups for college hoops fans.  As anyone working at 700 West Washington Street in Indianapolis is surely aware, that should NEVER happen.  Even on its worst night, for an NCAA Tournament game to be overshadowed by another basketball-related sporting event in March should be an impossible achievement, and yet on that particular evening it was not.

This NIT Contest, Not the NCAA Game, Was the Featured Event of the Night

And therein lies the problem.  Most people, even hardcore college hoops fans like us, don’t consider the Tuesday night PiG to be a legitimate part of the NCAA Tournament.  It involves the two worst-rated teams in the field, which means nobody knows anything about them; and it has zero impact on our brackets, which means there’s no corresponding reason to care to learn about them either.  So the question for the NCAA becomes: how do you legitimize it?  How do you remove that stigma that Shaheen mentioned as problematic?  How do you make people care about the (now) four play-in games on Tuesday so that random NIT games involving struggling national powers don’t take priority over NCAA games on the sports page?  Here are the two viable alternatives as we see them.

Status Quo (x4)

Keeping things as they are now where the #16s play the ‘other’ #16s (or possibly #17s in the new scheme) wouldn’t seem to do much to enhance the legitimacy of the PiGs, but there is precedent for this.  From 1978 to 1985, the NCAA Tournament doubled in size from 32 to 64 teams (can you imagine the outcry in today’s environment??).  There were several fits and starts along the way as it expanded a little more almost every year in-between, but suffice it to say that in 1983, the NCAA invited 52 teams to the ball with the final eight automatic qualifiers slotted as #12 seeds into four play-in games (or the “preliminary round” as they called it then).  In 1984, there were five play-in games with an additional #11 seed added to the mix.  In both of these years, all of the play-in games were played on the Tuesday prior to the first round games, and the teams were sent to PiG sites of Philadelphia’s Palestra or Dayton’s UD Arena depending on relative proximity to the school(s) involved.  The winners advanced to play #5 seeds in the true “first round,” with the one exception of the #11 seed (Northeastern) in 1984 who played a #6 seed in that round.

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Greg Shaheen is in a Much Better Mood These Days

Posted by rtmsf on April 30th, 2010

You may not have heard because it was such a formality, but yesterday the NCAA Board of Directors approved the recommendation made by its basketball committee to expand the NCAA Tournament to 68 teams.  The committee will now spend the next two months reviewing possibilities as to how to structure the expansion, but one of the key criteria they will consider is to design a system that will remove the stigma of teams who are invited to the play-in game.  Doug Gottlieb interviewed NCAA Senior Executive VP Greg Shaheen on his radio show yesterday, and you may recall that Shaheen was the mouthpiece who set the world on fire with his discussion of 96-team expansion during the week of the Final Four.  It’s good to hear considerably less stress in his voice as he discussed several of the options on the table; not bad for a suit who has morphed from one of the most despised men in American sports to one that everyone now praises.  Gottlieb said at the end of the piece, “thank you,” and we’d be remiss if we didn’t say likewise.  In an era where the almighty dollar seems to always win out, thanks for listening to the fans, Greg. 

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A Look At The Future Of The NCAA Tournament (For Now)

Posted by nvr1983 on April 22nd, 2010

Over the past few months this site and many others that cover college basketball were filled with columns about what was viewed as an almost certain expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. It turns out that almost everyone in the media (including us) had it wrong as the NCAA announced its plans to expand to a 68-team tournament while being broadcast on CBS and the 3 Turner networks (TBS, TNT, and truTV). Technically the NCAA Board of Directors still has to approve the changes next Thursday, but that should be a rubber stamp situation given the unanimity in today’s decision. The deal, which should account for approximately 96% of revenue for men’s college basketball, will pay the NCAA $10.8 billion over 14 years (or a little over $771 million per year) compared to the previous deal of $6 billion over 11 years (or slightly more than $545 million per year). That deal, which was signed in 1999, allowed the NCAA an opt-out by July 31 of this year. Once the NCAA exercised that option it was widely believed that their intention was to sign with ESPN in the network’s attempt to take over all things sports-related. When it became clear that ESPN was no longer the front-runner in the bidding, everyone’s attention turned to the CBS/Turner bid. We will get to the whole 68 team thing in a bit just bear with us while we go through the TV issues.

Credit: Indy Star/S. Riche

Coming soon to TBS. . .

While everybody is familiar with CBS’s work on the NCAA Tournament since they have broadcast every NCAA championship game since the 1982 Tourney which involved a freshman named Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot, Turner’s association with college basketball is a little less well-known. When I say “less well-known,” I mean that I am unaware of any prior association between Turner Sports and college basketball.  Some news reports are indicating that the NCAA was leaning towards the joint bid because of their desire to have every game broadcast nationally, which would require four channels broadcasting games. Even though ESPN would have that capability (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, and ESPN Classic) and we are still searching for truTV on our local cable provider (Comcast in Boston) it is being reported that this desire favored the CBS/Turner deal. All of the games will continued to be streamed online. What this will do is eliminate the need for Greg Gumbel to switch you to a different game (often at inappropriate times) and allow those of us who don’t get DirecTV’s March Madness package to watch two close games at once on a split screen (assuming you have picture-in-picture on your TV). [Ed. Note: TNT/TBS reaches almost six times as many households as DirecTV (99 million versus 18 million).] It is unclearexactly how much ESPN bid for the NCAA Tournament, but it is believed to have been relatively close to the CBS/Turner bid.

Credit: DickVitaleOnline.com

We won't be seeing these two broadcasting NCAA Tournament games any time soon

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68!!!

Posted by rtmsf on April 22nd, 2010

Has there ever been a non-prime number so beautiful as this one? 

The NCAA made the right decision, from its release this afternoon:

Late Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee unanimously passed a recommendation to the Division I Board of Directors to increase tournament field size to 68 teams beginning with the 2011 Championship. The recommendation will be reviewed by the Division I Board of Directors at its April 29 meeting.

Much more later…

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