College basketball’s nonconference scheduling issue can be solved with bracket play to start season

Here’s an idea so outrageous it might just be the thing that can improve, if not help save, what’s undeniably going to be the most challenging college basketball season in history: start the season the season the way you end the season.

With a bracket.

Nothing but brackets.

Brackets and college hoops go together like peanut butter and jelly or pen and paper. They’re destined for each other. And in an effort to provide the sport with an egalitarian nonconference schedule in a time of unending uncertainty, college basketball should look to its nonpareil event, the NCAA Tournament, as its primary solution to a problem no one’s figured out yet.

An array of 64-team tournaments would be college basketball utopia, but that’s truly logistically impossible at this point. As is a single tournament with every Division I-eligible team. But what about dotting the United States with a bevy of 32-team brackets — and make them double elimination to increase the inventory of nonconference games? 

The entire country would be riveted. 

Here’s the pitch: these standalone events would comprise the entirety of the 2020-21 nonconference season. College basketball would bookend 2020-21 exclusively with tournament play. Before I lay out how the NCAA can do this — admit it, you are already loving the idea — let me first provide some context on why it’s an escape hatch in what’s become the longest offseason in college hoops history.

As CBS Sports recently reported, the oversight committees for women’s and men’s basketball voted to request Nov. 25 be the start date for the 2020-21 season. On Sept. 16, the Division I Council will have the authority to make that official. A start date is a start, but there’s so much left to figure out. And at this point, nobody has any clear indication on just exactly how the season will start.

It boils down to: nonconference or conference-only beginning on Nov. 25? Conference-only has plenty of benefits, but that’s another column. Nonconference first (the way college basketball has mostly started for nearly a century) is riddled with issues. Are all games prior to Nov. 25 just canceled? Probably not. So … can schools push some opponents back? Not everyone schedules equally; some teams have games pre-Nov. 25 that are much more important to their résumé than others. Why should the teams that were able to load up early be punished, while others can potentially benefit by saving their better teams after Nov. 25?

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You also have the moving target that is the November tournaments (referred to as MTEs) and how those will be utilized. Those scheduled to begin before Nov. 25 but getting pushed back creates more quagmires. Teams have nonconference games scheduled into early December, so what about those big matchups? You can’t play both the MTEs and those other nonconference tilts at the same time. And what about binding contracts? Could a power-conference team really stand on any legal ground for cancelling a buy-game contract if it opted to reschedule and play other schools in that same timeframe?

The situation’s a mess. This is a knot that can’t be fully untied, and everyone in college basketball is waiting to see how it’s going to be handled. 

Which gets me back to my idea: tournaments, tournaments everywhere! The oversight committees, and all other stakeholders, should blow up the 2020-21 nonconference slate. Start with a clean sheet. Every single noncon game scheduled for this season gets renegotiated for another time. The NCAA can protect its membership from itself by making a ruling that the only allowable nonconference games during the unique era of the coronavirus would be in these 32-team tournaments. 

Here’s how the math initially works: there are now 357 Division I teams (an outrageous number, I know) playing men’s basketball. We already know that the Ivy League is out until January. So bump those eight down and you’re at 349. The Pac-12 isn’t scheduled to play yet, but as we’ve previously reported, that looks on its way to being reversed, a decision that seems all the more likely now that the Pac-12 will have daily rapid-response testing by October. 

So we’re at 349 teams. Now, any school or league that wants out can certainly opt out, and if that’s the case, we can make tweaks where need be. Brackets are made to be broken. But let’s not assume the worst. Let’s say the NCAA takes this plan and runs with it and everyone is in.

So, 32-team bracket x 10 = 320 teams. You have 10 32-team tournaments right there. (Try not to squeal.) That leaves us with 29 leftover. OK, so what do we do now?

We save the best for last and make a best-of-the-best bracket. The NCAA will rely on its voting entity of record, the AP preseason poll, to field the last and best tournament. Just as its true at the end of the season, the start of the season will have a bracket with all of the best teams in it. The top 29 vote-getters in the preseason AP Poll will be dropped into a bracket that would be formatted to allow the top three teams to receive a bye, while the team in slot No. 4 would play the team in slot No. 29, No. 5 plays No. 28, and so on. 

Don’t stop me now — I’m rolling. Obviously it would seem silly and somewhat cruel to create these brackets and knock out half of college basketball’s inventory with just one loss. So we won’t. It will be a double-elimination tournament. Doing this will ensure everyone plays two games minimum, while champions in their respective brackets would play five games — or six if they lose in the title game against the loser’s-bracket champion, prompting a rubber match. Even the teams ineligible for the 2021 postseason due to APR sanctions (Alabama A&M, Coppin State and Delaware State) would be eligible. 

Double-elimination across 11 brackets would also allow college basketball’s nonconference season in 2020-21 be more than one-third (close to 34%) of its normal nonconference tonnage. (There were exactly 2,000 nonconference games between D-I schools last season.) In this format, we’re looking at anywhere between 676 and 687 games. A 32-team double elimination tournament would involve 62 or 63 games. The 29-team field would be 56 or 57 games.

People love brackets, so why not have them in December?

At the very least, this could increase some credibility with ratings systems. I reached out to Ken Pomeroy about this idea and he said it would obviously be better than no nonconference games. His verdict: It would ultimately be OK, and an improvement, but not foolproof. 

Now to the schedule. You’d space out the games between Nov. 25 and Dec. 23, giving college basketball nearly a month in which the only other major team sports being played in this country would be the NFL (almost entirely on Sundays) and maybe a trickle of college football games, especially if the Big Ten and Pac-12 don’t rev up until January. 

You’d probably need six sites. With 11 tournaments, all the teams do not need to be in the same location, so you create six bubbles. The NCAA runs the show, just as it does the NCAA Tournament. It gets help by having staff from member schools pitch in — just as what happens at the NCAA Tournament. Right now there is no shortage of promoters and businesses trying to pull off nonconference MTEs and mini tournaments — so the NCAA outsources those resources as well to ensure this can happen, including the acquisition of testing. If the Pac-12 can pay for and have rapid-response testing by the end of this month, the NCAA should be able — considering hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance — turn that by the end of November.

And if logistics dictate it’s more doable in January, then fine: start nonconference season a few days after we hit January and push the NCAA Tournament back as far as is reasonable. 

I’m still not done!

Beyond providing nonconference opportunities, what else could these tournaments be utilized for? Creativity is the best friend of opportunity, so the winner of each bracket will be awarded an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, which in this scenario we are of course still assuming is 68 (or 64!) teams. They’ll be promised a bid but nothing else; the 11 tournament winners will still need to win in league play to solidify a good seed a few months down the road. This would also introduce a new concept: a conference could wind up having two teams earn automatic bids in 2021, which is a fun bonus. If there’s one thing that’s been consistently communicated from the NCAA to its member institutions, it’s the need for flexibility and inevitable sacrifice this season. 

Now you’re wondering how we field these brackets. Who gets placed where and how? Good news: the selection committee will not be needed. There is no committee for these early season tournaments. There are no seeds — not even for the best-of-the-best bracket. Everything is a random draw. You would start with the best-of-the-best bracket first, then tackle every other bracket one by one. With a 32-team format, and a maximum of 31 leagues eligible, at least one team from each conference will play in almost every bracket. (This is something that can be achieved relatively easily with software programming, the kind of thing the NCAA already pays people to do.) The only bracket procedures in place would be to not allow intra-league opponents to face each other in the first two rounds. And yes, BYU would be spared from playing on Sundays. 

The tournament reveals would be televised on Nov. 10 — the original start date for college basketball’s season. This would provide the sport its most hyped preseason in history and give everyone 15 days to get their affairs in order.

To ease the burden on travel, the six tournament sites will be strategically placed across the country in a way that is generally the most cost effective, with a nod to geography. I’ll toss out these six as a starting point, considering there are already people trying to make them happen for MTE events in November and December: Connecticut, Orlando, Louisville, Las Vegas, Asheville, North Carolina and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The same opportunities would be provided for women’s basketball, with adjustments made as necessary to differentiate between each sport’s preseason top-teams poll. Otherwise, men’s and women’s teams travel together and stay in the same hotels. If schools or conferences opt out of this, that’s fine. But then they are left with only league games and would willingly opt in to playing at a disadvantage for this season. If it’s so much that you lose one or two brackets, so be it. We’ve got more than enough already and the NCAA would implement a deadline in October for schools to determine if they’re in or out.

You wouldn’t need to start each tournament at the same time, either. Let’s spread this love out. Have two tournaments begin on Nov. 25, then another two three days later, another two three days after that and so on. Save the best-of-the-best bracket for last, beginning around Dec. 13 and wrapping up Dec. 23. 

By doing this, even the teams in each bracket that make it to the title game wouldn’t be on site for more than two weeks. What’s more, holding these tournaments in November and December would prepare the NCAA for the real deal four-plus months later, using protocols and procedures I have previously laid out in respect to the 2021 tournament. 

Once the tournaments wrap, all teams head home and students go on Christmas break. Upon returning, each conference determines how it will play out its league games. All conferences wrap well in time for the usual start of the NCAA Tournament: mid-March. 

Now, with all that on the table, a concession: I’m all too aware that this idea is way too out of the box for the traditionally stodgy NCAA to ever consider it. But it should. And it should consider other inventive scheduling alternatives as well. Looking to December, I see a sports landscape that will likely have the NFL and basically almost nothing else. College basketball has been given a unique opportunity. Its stakeholders should be looking to not just improve the season, but to up the urgency, to not settle on something predictable and rife with irregularity. Lean into ideas that might be challenging but will give the sport more appeal than it’s ever had before. 

The 2020-21 college basketball season will be imperfect by design. But nothing would be more appropriate or perfect for this sport than to build some brackets, roll out the balls and let chaos do its thing. It would be the best season of all time.

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