HOW THE PANDEMIC NCAA TOURNAMENT WOULD WORK IF I WERE KING OF THE SPORTS
I have some unfortunate news. We are currently in a pandemic. It is a pretty big deal, and it is impacting life all across the world in pretty significant ways. Sports are among the institutions that have been pretty much torn to shreds. Games are being played in front of empty stadiums if they are played at all. Contests are regularly cancelled, and new ones are added at a moment’s notice. We’ve seen this play out in college football already.
The problem will be exacerbated during the basketball season. As astute followers of the game may know, college basketball is typically either played indoors or on the deck of a large battleship. This is not ideal for pandemic play as viruses spread indoors quicker, and the close confines of a battleship are conducive to the spread of infectious diseases. Numbers are spiking throughout the US, making play more dangerous and schedules much more likely to be volatile. Games will be cancelled, and schedules will be a hodge-podge.
Despite all this, sports powers on. The college basketball season is set to begin with a plethora of teams who are brave/stupid enough to head to the gym and toss around the ol’ peach. This is a welcome sight for mid-major sports fans such as me, who haven’t had much to watch for about eight months. But it will undoubtably become a bit of a mess, as most things have during the time of the ‘Rona. The college football season has become a bit of a farce in many ways. Teams are playing wildly unbalanced schedules, little nonconference play has occurred, and games are getting cancelled and rescheduled left and right. At the end of the day, we’ll see where we land but if nothing else we are going to have to do a lot of guesswork when it comes to deciding our national champion.
That doesn’t have to be the case for basketball. And I think I have a solution. It seems unlikely this is the direction we’ll go, but here is how I would play it if I were made king of the college basketball world.
1.) Abandon non-conference play: Obviously, this is a very boring idea. And deep down, I do not really think I even want it to happen. I want to see how my team stacks up against schools from other leagues, and not just the same nine opponents we see every year in league play. But there are a plethora of benefits. For one, you can knock out (or at least minimize) the unbalanced scheduling problem within leagues. Without non-conference games, leagues can start conference play in early December, spread games out, and build in makeup days. This significantly increases the chance that leagues will be able to complete their schedules and have a balanced final standing. Secondly, it allows individual leagues to control their virus procedures a little better. Testing protocol is being determined at the conference level, and so it creates a problem when a Summit League team that is testing once every two weeks faces a Pac 12 team that tests every day. If you only play within your league you control the protocol, and everyone is on equal footing and faces equal risk.
Without nonconference play it becomes impossible to evaluate talent between the conferences and makes it really difficult to determine at-large bids. But alas! I have a solution for that as well.
2.) Expand the tournament to 128 teams: I love the tournament as is. I think most people would agree that the format is just fine at its current 68 teams. However, this is already going to be a different tournament than usual with all teams playing in one city, likely without fans. And team selection is going to be a mess, as schools will likely have played a different number of games, and wildly varying non-conference slates. I say take a page from the MLB and expand the playoffs for the occasion.
Still, how do we decide who gets in? Wont this just mean every mediocre power conference team gets in? Do we really need that? Well, yes and no because we’ll also…….
3.) Expand automatic berths to two bids per league: In my proposal the NCAA Tournament would resorb the NIT (and would now have the power of the greatest postseason in the land AND a little baby tournament). With 128 teams from 31 leagues (the Ivy is out) there would be plenty of room to give each league two bids. Those bids would go to the conference regular season champion and the conference tournament champion, and if both are the same then the second-place team in that league would get the bid. This preserves the importance of the regular season even if teams are only playing within their leagues, while still preserving the importance of the league tournament at the end of the year. This disproportionately helps the small leagues, obviously, but consider this. Even after all the dust has settled and each league gets two bids, there will still be sixty-god-damn-six at large bids. There are a total of 76 teams in the power six leagues and 12 will get automatic bids, so there are actually more at-large bids than there are power six teams left to fill them. We would obviously have to throw out the .500 requirement for this year as well. So in the end you’d be comparing the 12th or 13th best Big Ten Team with the 5th or 6th best Mountain West team for the final spots. At that point, neither team can really complain about the format and being left out.
Does this cause logistical issues? Yes. And I really do not have an answer for that. You could play the first two rounds on the Tuesday and Wednesday that typically hosts the First Four, so the calendar is not really a problem. But if you are going to try and play the tournament in one city that is going to be an issue. Indianapolis can’t be expected to easily house 128 teams. One solution would be to expand to two sites, and not bring everyone together in one place until the Final Four. Another option would only work if you could squeeze 128 teams into Indy. If you want to run the tournament like normal at 8 facilities you could use each facility every day, instead of using four on one day and four on the other like is typically done (although I know that causes COVID issues too). Ultimately, I have some possible answers for this one, but not any that are home run solutions.
One more positive for the NCAA is that it doubles the games being played in the tournament and might allow them to squeeze some more money out of that big ol’ TV deal they have with CBS to broadcast the event. It preserves equality across leagues, allows for teams to have some wriggle room to complete their schedules, makes it more likely that teams can compete safely, cuts down on travel costs and makes for one hell of a fun unique tournament at the end. I don’t think this will happen, but I think it could definitely work for what will certainly end up being a weird year.