Anyone from Arkansas to Arkansas-Pine Bluff could kick off March Madness next year.
The NCAA's expanded 68-team men's basketball tournament will include a four-game first round involving eight teams from all across the Division I spectrum. Two of those initial games will include the four lowest seeds in the field – but the other two will include the final at-large qualifiers.
The NCAA unveiled the new plan Monday. All four of the "First Four" games will be broadcast on Turner's truTV cable channel. The eight teams will play early in the first week, with the winners advancing to games on Thursday or Friday.
"I think some people are going to look at it and say it looks like a compromise," said Laing Kennedy, a retired Kent State athletic director who is on the men's basketball committee that developed the new format. "What we look at is that it really does preserve the integrity of the 31 automatic qualifiers."
The NCAA announced in April that it would add three teams to the field, the first expansion since the tournament went from 64 teams to 65 in 2001. For the last 10 years, the bottom two teams in the field were sent to an opening game before the round of 64.
That game would include teams from some of the weakest conferences, but the new format will offer a bit more variety. The NCAA decided against picking the lowest eight seeds for the new round. Two of the early games will match the tournament's lowest seeds, Nos. 65 through 68, with the winners advancing to play top seeds. The other two games will match the last four at-large qualifiers, meaning two teams from powerful conferences could play the tournament's first game.
"You're not going to come up with the perfect model," committee chair Dan Guerrero said. "You're not going to come up with a model that is going to appease every constituency out there. But we felt that this model provided the opportunity to do something special for the tournament."
The at-large teams will be seeded where they would normally be placed in the bracket, meaning a first-round game between two No. 10 seeds would result in the winner advancing to play a No. 7 seed.
Gene Smith, Ohio State's athletic director and a member of the committee, said there was no consensus on a favored format from the NCAA membership. The committee also considered sending the bottom eight teams in the field to the first round or having the last eight at-large qualifiers play those games.
Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said her members generally supported just having the bottom eight seeds slug it out to make the second round. That solution would have eased the burden on the top conferences, whose teams receive many of the at-large selections.
"I can appreciate the committee's position of reaching a compromise," Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said in a statement. "However, I would have preferred to maintain the purity of the seeding, 1-68."
Guerrero and NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen said the committee was sensitive to the fact that some big-name teams could now be ousted shortly after the brackets are filled out.
"We took that into consideration," Guerrero said. "That would have been the consideration if all eight at-large teams had been a part of the 'First Four.' The expanded tournament allowed for three new at-large teams to get into the tournament. We felt it was appropriate since we had a 68-team model, that those three teams be a part of that equation along with the 34th at-large team."
UC-Riverside athletic director Stan Morrison, a committee member, said putting the bottom eight teams into the first round might involve too many teams that won automatic bids from their conferences.
"There has to be some acknowledgment somewhere by someone, someplace, that winning is really important, and specifically, winning your conference tournament," he said. "While I do not think that the final product is a compromise, I think it is a wonderful acknowledgment that winning is really important."
The NCAA said there could be games on both Tuesday and Wednesday of the tournament's opening week. The Tuesday winners would play Thursday and the Wednesday winners would play Friday.
Athletic director Skip Perkins, whose Arkansas-Pine Bluff team won last season's tournament opener, said he thought the committee came up with a good solution. He also offered a suggestion on scheduling.
"I would hope that it would never be two play-in games at one time," Perkins said. "I would at least hope that out of those four, that each would have their own life."
Locations for the first-round games have not been determined. Dayton, Ohio, which has hosted the early game since 2001, is under consideration to host each of the first four games.
AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Indianapolis contributed to this report.