Selecting and bracketing the 68 teams for the NCAA tournament are immensely important responsibilities. Getting the 68 teams right, protecting the top 16 seeds (four in each region), and not giving undue advantages to lower seeds are the three main tasks of the selection committee each year… within the given bracketing rules, of course (rules that aren't always adhered to).
The move from 65 teams to 68 has brought up a part of the bracketing process in which the committee can exercise some creativity and freedom — this is a debatable point, of course, but one worth considering.
Let's be honest: Is it that much of an injustice to a bubble team to ship it to the First Four instead of the round of 64? Virginia Commonwealth did make the Final Four from a First Four game in 2011, but for the most part, fringe NCAA tournament teams are not in the thick of the national title chase. If you're sent to Dayton instead of a round of 64 site, can you truly claim to have been wronged in a profound way? You're in the Dance, which generally matters a lot more than where you're sent as an 11 or 12 seed.
You can make a case that the selection committee should be very rigorous about seeding. You'd stand on solid ground, too. However, when you get past the first nine seed lines or thereabouts, you're dealing with the back end of the at-large pool and, at the 11 and 12 lines, the bubble teams with resumes just good enough to get into the field. The First Four should offer a context in which the most "bubbly" of the bubble teams are matched against each other. This is when the bracket becomes art as well as science, a canvas as well as a laboratory.
Here are some of the First Four matchups that should be considered. Keep in mind that these are not reflections of who should be in the tournament or not. The point of emphasis is to promote the best pairings of teams in the two "bubble team" First Four games.
The first principle of any First Four matchup should be to avoid a phrase college basketball diehards know well: "mid-on-mid crime." Mid-majors, if good enough to make the NCAA tournament, should get to test themselves against (and be tested by) the power-conference teams they didn't get many chances to play during the regular season. This should be the purpose of the NCAA tournament in general, at least when mid-major schools are part of the equation.
The second basic principle of First Four mixing and matching should be to pit teams with markedly different resumes — not in terms of their value (because they've been judged to be fairly equal on that score), but in terms of the composition of their pluses and minuses. There's not a lot of mystery or drama in pairing two teams whose resumes acquired the same basic traits over the course of the season. Think of California and Iowa — those two resumes are very similar. Matching them in the First Four seems like a waste of both time and opportunity.
With those two principles in mind, let's toss out 10 First Four matchups that would make sense… again, regardless of whether one team should (or will) be in the NCAA tournament or not.
10. TENNESSEE vs. GREEN BAY
Both teams defeated Virginia… and that's where the similarities end. Tennessee, being a power conference team, got lots of bites at the apple, meaning that the Vols had many chances to beat top teams and play their way into the field. Yet, the Vols went 0-for-3 against Florida and lost their one game against Kentucky. Green Bay, when it got a chance to take down a big boy, lost to Wisconsin but then beat Virginia. Let's see what two teams from different sides of the tracks in college basketball's power structure will do when sharing the same court.
9. BYU vs. IOWA
BYU is a unique case because of the injury to guard Kyle Collinsworth. Why not see how well the Cougars can play on a neutral court in a tournament setting? Matching the Cougars against a power conference team creates the contrast in flavors that makes the First Four worth having (if you're someone who believes in a 68-team tournament, not a 64-team event).
8. SMU vs. DAYTON
SMU picked off four high-quality wins but did little else. Dayton didn't collect a giant scalp but was steadier. This represents a good cross-pollination of profiles, the very thing the First Four ought to test.
7. PROVIDENCE vs. LOUISIANA TECH
Providence might not have played in a league with five or six at-large teams, but it did play several bubble teams through much of the season, not to mention Villanova and Creighton. Louisiana Tech didn't get that same chance, but the Bulldogs did win at Oklahoma.
6. NEBRASKA vs. SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Nebraska produced several high-end wins. Southern Mississippi did not. Remember that Southern Miss didn't have a chance to beat Memphis within the context of conference play, since the Tigers shuffled on over to The American.
5. FLORIDA STATE vs. GREEN BAY
Florida State's inability to win games against the top tier of the ACC is little different from Tennessee's inability to get a single win against Florida or Kentucky. Put the Noles against Green Bay, and let the test begin.
4. SMU vs. TOLEDO
Let's say Toledo loses the Mid-American Conference Tournament final. Putting the Rockets against SMU, the owner of one of the more unusually-shaped resumes, would represent a First Four matchup of contrasting profiles.
3. BYU vs. MINNESOTA
BYU achieved more in non-conference play, while Minnesota had a chance to accomplish more in conference competition. Match these teams, and you have a natural First Four game.
2. CALIFORNIA vs. LOUISIANA TECH
Do you see how this works? Teams from the opposite sides/suburbs/districts of "BubbleVille" should play in these Dayton-based duels.
1. IONA vs. NEBRASKA
Not Iowa versus Nebraska, but Iona, from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The "Two Different Worlds" nature of the clash is precisely what makes the First Four a worthwhile basketball experiment. Mid-on-mid crime, as shown last year with Middle Tennessee versus Saint Mary's, just can't be allowed to happen again in Dayton.