What’s in a Name? March Madness First Round Is the ‘First Round’ Again

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The NCAA has finally given up on a losing battle, and it’s about time. No, we’re not talking about paying players or forming a College Football Playoff that includes more than four teams. Instead, this is a really critical issue. (Can you sense the sarcasm?) Here goes …

The Thursday-Friday games that tip off the part of March Madness everyone pays the most attention to? You know the ones we’re talking about, right? The 32 games in 24 beautiful hours? Upsets? Cinderellas? Busted brackets? That’s now the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, or at least it will be in 2016. Oh, and the games that follow those? The wonderfully chaotic Saturday and Sunday in the tourney’s opening weekend when the field is sliced down to its Sweet 16 teams? That’s now the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament — well, it will be next season, anyway.

You’re forgiven if you already thought Thursday-Friday was the first round and Saturday-Sunday was the second round. Most people do. And it’s a logical conclusion to come to: When 60 of the 68 teams in the field play their first games over a two-day span, “first round” seems to be logical and acceptable name.

Not lately, though. At least, not in the NCAA’s eyes. The powers that be in Indianapolis had decided and decreed repeatedly to everyone who would listen that Thursday and Friday were the second round. The organization shouted it from the highest mountaintops: Match-ups on the first Saturday and Sunday of the tournament were actually “third-round” games. It made no sense. Fans hated it. Media members hated it. OK, everybody hated it. So why the charade?

The reason, in a nutshell, is that the NCAA wanted people to care about the First Four. The association couldn’t bear the thought that the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders in Dayton might be seen as play-in games, because those eight programs were really in the full-fledged, grown-up tournament! Don’t tell those schools differently: It doesn’t matter that hardly anyone’s watching, that millions of Americans could wait to turn in their brackets until after they’ve already played, and that their reward for winning is to jump on a plane and take on a higher-seeded team that was probably resting and watching its future opponent’s “first-round” game on TV a thousand miles away.

You really belong here, Texas Southern! You really made it to the big time, Albany! So your games are going to be the official first round, even if that means more than 88% of the teams in the Big Dance are going to have an identical bye to the ludicrously named second round.

J. Meric/Getty Images
J. Meric/Getty Images

All the NCAA’s stubbornness really did is cause mass confusion. If a casual Duke fan watches Duke win its first game (OK, we know that hasn’t happened recently — bear with us. It’s just a hypothetical!) on Thursday or Friday, that fan automatically starts wondering who the Blue Devils are going to play in the second round. Only one small problem: It’s not called the second round. It’s called the third round.

If a UConn supporter wants to know who the Huskies take on in the first round when they attempt to defend their national title, the answer is somewhere between difficult and impossible to find. Why? Because the Huskies apparently aren’t playing in the first round … just like the overwhelming majority of the field isn’t, either.

The good news is that the NCAA finally came to its senses. As Vice President for Men’s Basketball Dan Gavitt said, “The committee voted last week to rename the opening weekend’s games to first- and second-round games, beginning with the 2016 championship.” In other words, what most people have been calling the first round all along is finally the first round again. The only question left: Why on earth wait until 2016 to make this change?

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: Kentucky’s first NCAA game in 2015 will actually be its second-round game even though everyone calls it the first-round game, which the committee realizes should actually be called the first-round game, so the committee is going to rename it the first-round game — but for this year, it’s still the second-round game. Yes, we know that’s a run-on sentence. That’s because the premise behind it is not the least bit logical. So why does the NCAA think it makes sense? Just write your press release this way instead: “We realize we screwed up. We realize the first round should be the first round. We changed it back, effective immediately. You’re welcome.”

But no, it couldn’t be that simple. So we’re left with only one other question: Is 2016 here yet?