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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 22, 2010

CBKB: Leagues wonder about details of new NCAA play-in games

By Erik Brady

The expanded NCAA men's basketball tournament will mean four opening-round games instead of one.

Winthrop coach Randy Peele isn't sure how to feel about that.

"The thing is," he says, "you don't feel like you're part of the tournament."

Winthrop lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff last month in this year's opening-round game, popularly known as the play-in game.

"Don't get me wrong, the NCAA does a first-class job" with that game, Peele says. "I'm just saying it doesn't feel the same because it isn't the same."

The NCAA will decide in coming weeks how the expanded opening round will work and how the eight teams that play in it will be selected. Speculation is they might come from teams with the lowest RPI ratings.

"At first blush, we want to be careful that we don't marginalize some leagues with these additional games," Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Commissioner Rich Ensor says. "That's not the intent of the committee, and we have to give them the time to think it through."

Of the 20 teams that have played in the 10 opening-round games since the first in 2001, nine have come from historically black colleges in the Southwestern and Mid-Eastern athletic conferences. The SWAC is 1-4 in play-in games and the MEAC 1-3.

One possibility is putting the last eight at-large teams in opening-round games playing for spots on, say, the 12 or 13 seed lines. Ensor says that sort of thing could make the games more attractive for TV.

"The NCAA has been thinking outside the box in this whole process, and I think they'll continue to do that," Ensor says. "We can make this a really interesting four games instead of feeling, 'Oh, I'm in that game.' "

Alabama State, which plays in the SWAC, lost the 2009 play-in game.

"I would welcome the opportunity to play" in an expanded opening round, Alabama State interim athletics director Sterling Steward Jr. said. "There are hundreds of other schools that wish they were in your spot."

Says MEAC Commissioner Dennis E. Thomas: "It's not a given that the (historically black) conferences will be relegated to opening-round games. It all depends on the year. We're comfortable with the strength of our league."

He points out that 15-seeds have beaten 2-seeds four times in NCAA tournament history, and twice those upsets came from MEAC teams: Coppin State against South Carolina in 1997 and Hampton against Iowa State in 2001.

Division I men's basketball selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero said "there are a number of options" as his group prepares to deal with the details. He said the "most obvious" is to put the lowest-rated teams in the play-in games. But he also said the committee could be "creative" and do something like include the last eight at-large teams "battling it out" for spots in the bracket on the 12 or 13 seed line, or he said there could be a combination of playing the last four at-large teams with several conference winners based on overall seeding.

Peele says he hopes opening-round games will be played in the same cities as first-round games. He thinks Dayton, Ohio, has done a great job as host but that the travel turnaround is too tough on a winning team that has to play Tuesday in Dayton and Friday in Jacksonville, for example.

Winthrop plays in the Big South, which has the third-most play-in appearances with three (1-2). Winthrop lost the first opening-round game in 2001 as well as the most recent, the only school to lose it twice.

Two other conferences have played in two opening rounds: Metro Atlantic and Northeast, which are each 2-0. Four other leagues have played in it once: Patriot, Summit, Southland and Ohio Valley.

Contributing: Tim Gardner