If they follow even the most promising path that seems available to their college football brethren at this point, it is quite possible that the men of NCAA basketball could be missing out this season on the Gavitt Games, the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It is those events and so many other non-conference games that annually establish which high-major conferences are most powerful in a given season and which mid-major teams are punching above their weight class and thus which might belong in the NCAA Tournament if they succeed in league play.
If all of that goes away for the 2020-21 season and only league games are contested for the sake of time or safety or both, Tulsa coach Frank Haith suggested to Sporting News that consideration should be given to expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams — just this once — because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on intercollegiate athletics.
As someone who expressed vehement opposition to such an expansion when it was considered in 2010 as part of the negotiation for a new March Madness television contract — I called it a “horrible idea” and potential “disaster” — I’d agree that this would be a reasonable approach to assure deserving teams are not excluded.
So long as there was some sort of contract, signed in blood, guaranteeing it would be a one-time exemption.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 already have declared that they will contest only conference games in football this autumn. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC have delayed announcements on the matter but quite likely will make the same decision. And there is fear that they might not have a season at all.
NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told SN that he is hopeful men’s basketball will be able to start the season on time, Nov. 10. But he acknowledged that if the non-conference season were to be eliminated, the NCAA has been told by Google, which helped develop the NET metric now at the core of the selection process, the integrity of the ratings could be compromised.
“That kind of cross-pollination is vital to the accuracy of the NET,” Gavitt said.
A larger field would reduce the pressure on the selection committee to decide among teams whose records are abbreviated and parochial.
The NCAA flirted with a 96-team tournament in 2010 because members had come to depend on its lucrative television contract with CBS, and that deal was soon to expire. CBS did not wish to write a check that was in the neighborhood of $700 million annually; a source close to the negotiation told SN that ESPN was willing to meet or exceed that price, but only if there was a corresponding expansion of inventory. In TV speak, that means more games.
I used the word “folly” to describe it at that year’s Final Four.
It was Turner’s willingness to do a partnership deal with CBS that preserved the core of the tournament at 64 teams, with a gentle expansion of the opening round to the “First Four” concept that increased the field to 68.
That has led us to such magical moments over the past decade as No. 15 seed Lehigh beating Duke in 2012, Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown in 2013 and, most remarkable of all, 16 seed UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia in 2018.
A 96-team tournament likely would remove the possibility of such games occurring in 2021, depending on how it is structured.
The field could be seeded 1-96, with those ranked 33-96 playing against one another for the opportunity to be a part of the remaining 64. In a 96-team bracket with four regions, the teams seeded 9 would play those seeded 24, No. 10 would play No. 23, and so on. The winner of the 9 vs. 24 game would play the No. 8 seed in the round of 64, the 10-23 winner would play the No. 7 seed, etc.
All 32 automatic qualifiers could be seeded into a 64-team field as they normally would. Those that ordinarily would be 15 seeds — say, 2019 Colgate — would be 15 seeds. The 13 seeds would be 13 seeds. Then all the at-large selections could play for the opportunity to enter that bracket and be seeded according to their regular-season accomplishment. A team like 2019 Michigan would be seeded No. 2 in its region so long as it survived an opening-round game.
All of this would remove much of the drama from the regular season. That’s the second-best outcome from not the NCAA not making the move a decade ago. But in a truncated regular season with few methods beyond the eye test to evaluate teams from different conferences, it might be the fairest approach.
“If we’re not going to have a full non-conference season given the circumstances of the virus, it would be really fun to expand the tournament for a year on the back end, so we could make up for the loss of some tremendous games in November and December,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told Sporting News. “I would hope it’s a one-time deal. But I think there are going to be two or three teams in the Atlantic 10 that wouldn’t have a chance at the sort of non-conference success Dayton did last season. If it means Davidson or Rhode Island gets in, I think it’s great. Because those are the type of teams that win games in November and December that look good on the resume in March.”
The best idea is a complete regular season that begins with the Champions Classic and ends at Lucas Oil Stadium with the two surviving teams from a 68-team NCAA Tournament. We did not get to see that reach fruition in the 2019-20 season, and we may be prevented from seeing the 2020-21 season launch as planned. If that is to be the case, a temporary expansion may be the only just option.
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