When the NCAA announced that it was expanding the tournament to 68 teams, I assumed that it meant that instead of one play-in game, we'd have four. Specifically, it would push the eight worst teams to the 16-seed level and make more room for the teams that actually have a chance at winning a game or two.
Turns out, that's not what's happening.
The number of 16-seed play-in games is increasing, but it's only going up to two, not four. Instead, there will be another pair of them for the last four at-large teams in the tournament. That means that, until two days before the 64-team bracket kicks in, we won't know for sure the full composition of the 11- and/or 12-seed line. These new sets of play-in games are going to be called the "First Four."
This is a very NCAA-ian way of doing things, and it clearly illustrates the difference between college football and the sports where the NCAA is directly involved with the post season. Because the majority of schools in Division I basketball are not perennial powers, the NCAA must take as egalitarian a posture as it can. Forcing eight conference champions (no matter how middling the conferences) to the 16-seed line is too unfair to the body as a whole. Therefore we get this "First Four" garbage. Meanwhile, the BCS gets to largely ignore the irrelevant-to-the-post-season Sun Belt Conference for the 13th straight year.
This issue cuts right to the heart of what you think the purpose of the tournament is. Clearly it's not just for determining a champion, or else it would be smaller than 64 teams and the Patriot League wouldn't have a guaranteed spot. I get that you have to throw a bone to the smaller conferences when they have an equal say in how things work.
What makes the tournament great is that almost every game is a competitive match up. The 1-16 games have never been great, and the 2-15 upsets are increasingly rare. Kicking the current 15-seeds down a notch and adding more at-large teams to the middle increases the number of good games. Perhaps the 2-15 games wouldn't get much better, but the 3-14 games sure would be and so on. That would have improved the tournament as a whole.
Instead, we only get to add one new at-large to the middle and basically preserve the awfulness of what the 2-15 line has become. This is a simple ratings grab to try to actually get some viewers to tune in on Tuesday night by tossing in some borderline at-larges with the 16-seed play-in games.
This "First Four" construct is not really worth the expansion up to 68. However if this kind of decision making is the price we have to pay to hold the tournament in the first place, then it is worth it in the end.