The "Road to the Final Four" now starts with four games called the "First Four." The NCAA's new 68-team format for the men's college basketball tournament was announced Monday by selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero.
Under the previous 65-team setup, there was one play-in game for a 16th seed in a traditional 64-team draw. Now there are two play-in games for a 16th seed matching the teams rated 65th through 68th in the field, which likely will be small schools that are automatic qualifiers, and two games between the last four at-large teams selected for a higher bracket line, likely ranging from a 10th seed to a 12th seed.
The first four games now will be considered the first round of the tournament and will take place on Tuesday or Wednesday after Selection Sunday. The Thursday-Friday games now will be the second round, and the Saturday-Sunday games will be the third round.
The first round will be broadcast on Turner Network's truTV, which formerly was CourtTV. CBS, Turner, TBS and truTV are in the first year of a 14-year contract worth $10.8 billion.
Besides the 31 automatic qualifiers, the tournament will have 37 at-large teams, an increase of three. By forcing the last four at-large teams to play each other - most likely schools from BCS conferences - debates about who deserves to be in the 64-team main draw should be settled on the court.
"The teams selected for these games will be like teams," Guerrero said. "We felt if we were going to expand the field, it would create better drama for the tournament if the First Four was much more exciting. They could all be on the 10 line or the 12 line or the 11 line. We won't know until the seeding takes place."
The bracket issued by the NCAA on Selection Sunday will have both teams listed for the same seed line, just as it has in the past for the two teams playing in the opening-round game between Nos. 64 and 65 since that game's creation in 2001. The difference now is that two of the "First Four" games will involve a seed as high as 10th.
The practical effect is that many bracket pools likely will require entries to be submitted before the "First Four" begins. With a tournament game already under its belt, a competitive 10th seed might have an advantage against a seventh seed playing its first game in the second round.