UW Health Sports Medicine 

Houston, we have a format

2011_NCAA_Final_Four_Logo.jpgThe April announcement of the revamped structure for the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament answered a lot of questions -- and quelled a good deal of anxiety among college basketball fans -- about the future of the tournament.

The last lingering question was answered Monday with an announcement from the NCAA of just how the new, 68-team bracket would be structured.

With four teams being added to the field, the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball committee entertained several options for how to squeeze those new spots into the bracket.

In the end, they settled on a plan that features four first-round games comprised of eight teams looking to play their way into the second round.

Instead of simply filling those games -- dubbed the "First Four" -- with the eight lowest-seeded teams and having them battle for the four No. 16 seeds, the new first-round format involves a mix of the four lowest seeded automatic-bid teams and the last four at-large selections.

So, to review what we've learned so far:
- What we've known as the first round is now actually the second round
- For the first time, the NCAA committee will reveal the "last four in" to the tournament

OK, back to the plan.

The big question that remains is where the winners of the First Four games will be seeded. This is where it gets sort of tricky.

Obviously, the winners of the two games between the lowest-seeded automatic-bid teams (in other words, overall seeds 65-68) would become two of the No. 16 regional seeds in the bracket and face No. 1-seeded teams in the second round.

Basically, think the previous "opening round" format used with the 65-team tournament from 2001 to this year.

Where the winners of the two games between the last four at-large teams go is a little more involved. Basically, it all depends on the seeding of the at-large teams in each of those first-round games.

The two winners would occupy the seed line where they would normally be placed in the bracket. So, if one game is played between No. 12 seeds, the winner would be placed in the round of 64 -- now call the second round, remember -- as a 12 to face a No. 5 seed.

If the other game is played between No. 10 seeds, the winner would become a 10 and face a No. 7 seed in the second round.

We still don't know where the 2011 First Four games will be played, but they will air live on truTV and be held either on the Tuesday or Wednesday following Selection Sunday. The first-round site and schedule is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

While the new format makes room for four additional at-large teams to make the tournament, avoiding the First Four -- and the potential of having to play three games in five days if you advance through all the way to the round of 32 (third round) -- places even more importance on regular-season performance.

In terms of the Big Ten, think about this scenario: A bubble team wins Saturday advance to the title game of the conference tournament on Sunday and loses, solidifying an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament in the process. They then have to turn around and play Tuesday in a First Four game, which they win, and advance to play again Thursday. Win their second-round matchup, and a third-round game comes Saturday.

That's five games in seven days. Not to mention two travel days.

Likely? Maybe not, but it's something for league teams to think about given that the Big Ten tournament is the final piece of the bracketing puzzle to fall into place on Selection Sunday.