How the 2021 NCAA tournament could look with a delayed season … and how it should look

Frank Haith said what I was already thinking.

Tulsa’s coach, in a recent interview with The Sporting News, suggested that a one-time expansion of the NCAA tournament might be in order if the 2020-21 season is truncated because of the coronavirus pandemic. Haith isn’t wrong, but his motive almost certainly involves the postseason prospects of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the American Athletic Conference.

Haith and others now on the expansion bandwagon might not have considered the larger forces at work. Any tinkering with the NCAA tournament would have to be extremely judicious and cognizant that it would be very difficult to put any toothpaste back in the tube.

In other words, have you ever seen a major sports enterprise contract its playoffs or championship? The suggestion of a 96-team tournament, even for a year, is a colossally bad idea. If you don’t believe me, spend every night of the next season updating a true seed list — as I do — and tell me how the teams start to look after about 80 or so.

No, if we tinker with the tourney, there need to be short- and long-term benefits because Pandora’s box will be open. For now, let’s unpack the issues of what is appearing more and more likely to be a conference-only season:

  • Right off the bat, we are going to have teams in the tournament with losing records — and not just one or two. None of the power conference schools will pad their overall win-loss totals with cushy guarantee games. Get ready for an 8-seed vs. 9-seed NCAA matchup featuring the likes of Indiana (suddenly 9-11 overall) and Marquette (now just 8-10). Yuck.

Further, the absence of head-to-head competition outside the major conferences is going to increase the pressure to select teams such as Minnesota (8-12 last season), Xavier (8-10), Clemson (9-11), Alabama (8-10) and Arkansas (7-11). I can hear it now: “We don’t have any bad losses.” Double yuck.

  • Don’t expect much relief from NET or other ranking systems. NET, the recently deployed NCAA Evaluation Tool, requires a critical mass of intersectional games to be effective. Smaller samples will compromise the reliability of other familiar rankings. Also, we can be certain that the big boys will push back against anything that makes them look bad in comparison to the mid-majors.

Indiana, for instance, dropped five spots in NET during the Big Ten season. We would never know that — or that Minnesota fell 12 spots. Arkansas, in the SEC, took a 19-spot dive thanks to its losing ways. With no nonconference baseline, this kind of evaluation would be impossible and ignored.

  • All we’d really have would be the “eye test,” a bad idea in the best of times. Would that kind of arbitrary standard know that San Diego State spanked Creighton and Iowa? That BYU beat Houston and UCLA? What about Saint Mary’s over Wisconsin and Arizona State? Or Northern Iowa winning at Colorado, East Tennessee State at LSU and, dare I say, Stephen F. Austin’s overtime miracle at Duke?

The “it didn’t happen, so we’ll never know” scenario would be disastrous for the lesser-light programs that make March so special. The committee would have almost no choice but to default to the familiar, (in all likelihood) losing teams from power conferences. Triple yuck.

Instead, allow me to make some recommendations that could begin in 2021 and be sustained beyond that (if desired):

  • It will be incredibly important to give the conference seasons as much meaning as possible. To that end, the regular-season champion of each receives an automatic NCAA bid. Conveniently, that is 32 spots.

  • The conference tournaments are next and could result in up to 32 additional automatic bids (if a different team wins the regular-season title). Why would any conference not position itself to have a second team in the NCAA field? Because all double winners — regular season and conference tournament — receive a bye into the main 64-team bracket, protected seeding and an additional revenue unit.

  • In a typical year, there would be 52-56 automatic bids (including 12-16 double winners). The remainder of an 80-team field will play down to 64 by extending the current First Four to a new and improved “Bracket Busters” concept. The University of Dayton Arena, plus as many of the existing first-weekend sites as needed, would host doubleheaders or tripleheaders on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings after Selection Sunday.

All of this sounds more complicated than it is. Consider the following logistics, and see for yourselves:

  • First, we move up the five conference championship games from Selection Sunday to other slots earlier in the week. This gives the committee the entire day to complete an expanded bracket (and us the entire day to talk about it!).

  • Only 12 additional teams are traveling, with at least eight (if not all) of them headed to the site to which they would advance for Thursday or Friday games. With none playing on Selection Sunday, there is also an additional day for planning, scouting and practice.

  • Most importantly, these new games are the ones everyone wants to see. We are essentially taking the existing bubble — Last Four Byes, Last Four In, First Four Out, Next Four Out — and deciding their fate on neutral courts. This seems like an excellent idea in the best of times and is downright essential for a year in which best-practice evaluations of bubble teams can’t happen.

Let me further suggest that the new “Bracket Busters” will have considerable value and could be used to recoup some of the revenue lost with the cancellation of the 2020 tournament.

What would you rather watch on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday: the MEAC champion against the Northeast Conference winner or VCU against Texas? Thought so …

Mainly, if there is no nonconference portion of the season, the most essential of those games must be rearranged. And this is just the way to do it.

Thanks, Frank.

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Tagged 2021, Delayed, NCAA, season, tournament