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College basketball tries to be college football, will unveil early look at top 16 seeds in February

The NCAA will give college basketball fans an empty-calorie appetizer in February. (AP file photo/Jae C. Hong)
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The NCAA announced Tuesday that it will unveil the top 16 seeds for its men’s basketball tournament as they stand on Feb. 11, a full month before the entire 68-team field is announced on March 12. The announcement of the top four seeds in each region will be televised on CBS, with bracketologist Jerry Palm joining the usual CBS studio crew of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis.

On the face of it, the announcement will be meaningless because the top 16 seeds in mid-February have zero chance of being the same one month later, after the regular season and the conference tournaments play out. But still, it’s a chance for the NCAA to gin up interest in college basketball earlier than March, which it has struggled to do in recent years. And it comes straight from the college football playbook.

Ever since the advent of the College Football Playoff in the 2014 season, ESPN has unveiled the selection committee’s rankings in a televised show on Tuesdays starting in the second half of the season. And while these in-season rankings are utterly meaningless — of the 12 teams ranked in the top four of the initial rankings over the playoff’s first three seasons, only five ended up in the postseason — they do serve as a jumping-off point for arguments about what the committee got right, what it got wrong and what other teams need to do to improve their standing.

In other words, it gets people talking more about college football in the middle of the season, a spark for the sport’s well-documented controversy-industrial complex.

A similar idea has been in the works for college basketball since at least 2014, when USA Today’s Nicole Auerbach noted that the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee had discussed aping college football’s promotional methods.

“We did talk about it and certainly have been monitoring what the football committee has been doing,” Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of men’s basketball championships, told Auerbach back then. “Even going back to last year, before football started doing what they’re doing, we had some ideas of possibly taking more steps with what I think has been a real good effort over the years in transparency in the process — additional things we could do in that regard, but also possibly take advantage, as the football committee has, of the promotional/marketing value of that as well.

“It’s tricky because you’ve got to make sure to balance those two things. There’s the integrity of the process that needs to be maintained.”

The committee will only officially unveil the 16 top-seeded teams and will not address potential bubble teams, leaving the CBS crew to speculate about that.

“We are excited about giving the fans a glimpse to what the men’s basketball committee is thinking at this point of the season, and creating a buzz as we look towards Selection Sunday,” Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, chair of this year’s selection committee, said in a statement. “It’s important to recognize after this list has been released, there is still a significant portion of the regular season to be played and every league must stage its conference tournament. There’s potential for quite a bit of movement until we do it for real March 12, but this early peek will give everyone insight as to where the committee stands as we hit the stretch run of the regular season.”