The NCAA tournament tips off Tuesday night. Kind of. Er, not really. The actual tournament with its 16-games-a-day insanity doesn't begin until Thursday, but the four play-in games (the "First Four" as the NCAA wants you to call them) on Tuesday and Wednesday are still on the bracket and therefore have the potential to cost you money, which is the sign of whether a game is part of the tournament. This year's crop of play-in games is easily the most tantalizing since the new format was introduced after the 2010 tournament, particularly Wednesday night's Iowa vs. Tennessee matchup. But these games are still in an odd place, a kind of second bubble that begs more questions than answers.
Before I move on, let's quickly state the obvious: The First Four and the very concept of adding more games to any playoff-like format is not about fairness, inclusion or any other noble notions professed by executives or commissioners. It's about money. More games means more money means ... well, more money, which is the seemingly omnipotent explanation for everything in sports nowadays. The play-in games were announced at the same time as a new $10.8 billion television deal between the NCAA and Turner Sports/CBS for the rights to broadcast the tournament for the next 14 years. Many fans are inherently uncomfortable with the awkwardness of shoehorning four games at the top of what used to be a perfectly orderly and viscerally attractive bracket.
The undeniable fact that the play-in games give good teams a chance to earn a deep tournament run is a happy coincidence for its proponents and NCAA executives. Each year, one play-in winner has advanced beyond (what is now the) second round. The most obvious and bracket-busting example was 2011's VCU team playing their way to the Final Four in one of the most shocking runs in NCAA history. The following year, South Florida won their play-in game and then beat fifth-seed Temple before getting trounced by Ohio. Last year saw play-in victors La Salle advance to the Sweet 16.
While this may seem like implicit justification for the First Four's existence, it's more an argument for the committee's arbitrariness in determining the fate of bubble teams. The differences between the first four in and last four out are so miniscule any pretense of expertise is shrouded in hubris. Nobody has any idea whether, say, Florida State or NC State is more deserving than the other of a First Four spot, or which of the two could make a deeper tournament run. This uncertainty is kind of the whole point, but the sport is situated on the idea that a committee gets to decide these things, not the court. It's revealing of the whole process to suddenly decide these eight teams will get to earn their entry with a pre-playoff since all it does is shuffle the debate over two steps; four years ago, NC State would have been a last four out and Florida State barely mentioned on Selection Sunday.
All this awkwardness is underscored by the NCAA's insistence that the games be a part of the tournament itself: the same broadcast crews, the same networks and rights packages, the same sheet of paper as the rest of the bracket. At the same time, the games are always held at the University of Dayton, a stark contrast with the rotating locations of every other round. The NCAA will explore options to host the First Four elsewhere after 2015, and one might think they'll consider legitimately appealing destinations (sorry, Dayton). Matt Norlander suggested the games be hosted in classic college venues as a way to increase the "innate boost and juice and a great twist to those first two nebulous days of the tournament." This would give the games a Winter Classic-esque feel, more about the venue and uncommon scenario than the actual competition, a way to get more eyeballs on the game without actually making people accept the games as part of the tournament. In fact, it might even make the games feel more extracted from the rest of the proceedings if they were housed in, for example, Cameron Indoor.
The reason the First Four doesn't fit with the rest of March Madness is, well, because there's no madness. The NCAA tried to make them special at a time in the tournament where the games aren't. Many of the second-round games aren't that good. In both 2012 and 2013, 15 of the first 32 games -- just fewer than half -- featured the higher seed winning by 10 or more, but we barely notice those games because the networks highlight the other 17. In contrast, the First Four games are played one at a time, an appetizer prior to the main course of 48 games in four days. Much like the problem with Thursday Night Football, if the game's a dud, there's nothing to do but watch the carnage.
The best thing tournament officials can do is either get rid of the play-ins or stop hedging their bets and expand to the 96-team model, creating a full play-in round to conceal the bad games and feature the exciting ones. The First Four has been a proof of concept that there are capable teams left out of the 64-team field, which, given the slim margins between bubble teams, there are likely more than just eight more. In order to keep the bracket neat, this play-in round can be a completely separate gambling entity and the entire tournament shifted one week later so there's still plenty of time to fill out the traditional bracket. Not every game would need to be broadcast; maybe TruTV becomes a Redzone-like channel that bounces around to the best games while all the games are made available online. Unless something is done, the First Four will remain four games we never actually care about.