I've long disliked the play-in games. I liked them less when they were "first round" games, but I don't like them much more now. 64 teams was perfect symmetry. But the PiGs are here to stay, so we have to make the best of them. Dayton's a great venue, that's for sure.
If we have to have the PiGs, then they ought to be an opportunity, not a penalty. And it IS a penalty, for the four 16-seeds that have to play in them. It's also an opportunity for the four bubble teams. Personally, what I'd want to do is eliminate the two 16-seed play-in games, which penalize those teams, and make all the play-in games involve bubble teams fighting for seeding at the 10-11-12 seed level. Again, this isn't an original idea, but it's right for several reasons:
1. It's right because it's wrong to force the 16's to stop at Dayton for a game before getting into the field of 64. They earned their dance ticket by winning their conference tourney, and they should automatically get a game against a 1-seed on Thursday or Friday. Those kids have earned that moment in the spotlight.
2. Think about this too: without the 16-seed play-in games, two of those 16's would be 15's. Two of those 15's would be 14's. Two of the 14's would be 13's. You get the idea. While 16's still can't get off the schneid, 15's will pull upsets periodically (see "MTSU vs the Spartans" and "Dunk City", among others), and your odds get better as you move up the ladder. Half of the lower quarter of the bracket is receiving mathematically tougher odds just because of the PiG.
3. It's right because, unlike those 16's (on up to the 13's and 12's too), all those bubble teams have earned exactly nothing. They haven't won a tourney, won a conference title, or sometimes even finished .500 in their conference (I have some thoughts on that for another day). Make a team earn their way in.
4. It's right because it's fair. The differences between most bubble teams are usually minor... a few rungs on the RPI or SOS ladder, a big win here or embarrassing loss there. But I bet the difference between, say, the first couple 10's and the last couple 12's is fairly clear-cut. So pick the final 8 teams and make them earn their way in, for the right to play against a 5 or 6 seed. The first couple teams out will have even less to squawk about than they do now (not that it'll stop the "who got shafted" talk on Selection Sunday...admit it, if you're reading this it's one of your favorite parts of March Madness).
I'd add one twist though: at least two or three of these final 8 spots have to go to teams outside the power six conferences (the "BCS" schools plus the Big East). I don't know about you, but I felt for Monmouth and Bonaventure last year (even if it was my favorite team that cut them in line and made a run to the final four). Take this year for instance. I'd like to see MTSU, UNC Wilmington, Illinois State and maybe even UT Arlington get an at-large if they don't win their tourney. I'd like to see Rhode Island or even Houston get in. It's a down year for mid's in general, but isn't an upset bid by Monmouth or Akron more compelling than one by Wake Forest or Cal (other than to students and alumni of those schools, of course)? I think the teams in the power conferences have plenty of opportunities but the lower tier and even some in the middle... their windows are all too often fewer and farther between.
If you combine the two scenarios, the bottom of (my 2/28 version) bracket looks like this:
16's: New Orleans, UC Davis, Mt. St. Mary's, NC Central (all are currently in my PiG).
15's: North Dakota, Texas Southern, South Dakota, E Tennessee State
14's: Bucknell, FL Gulf Coast, Princeton, Winthrop
13's: CS Bakersfield, Belmont, Valpo, Vermont
12's: Monmouth, Akron, Nevada, UT Arlington
11's: NC Wilmington, MTSU, two PiG winners (Seton Hall v Ill State, Rhode Island/Vandy)
10's: Two PiG winners (Syracuse/Houston, Providence/Marquette), Northwestern, Arkansas
Think about it: half those teams moved up a seed line and get a (somewhat) more beatable opponent. I'd be furious if I were one of those conference presidents. And few of those play-in teams are consensus tournament teams. I admit, Houston especially is something of a fringe bubbler now, but in many years there'll be some real quality mids to pick from, and if one of those 12's lose in their conference final, well, maybe they replace Houston.
In the end, the tournament will be fun no matter who the "last four in" are. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved.