"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Let's Save the Season

 Is this the final image of 2020 NCAA Basketball? | Photo from USA Today

There is a lot of pessimism around the 2020-21 NCAA Basketball season. In April, I predicted that St. John's/Creighton would be the last NCAA Basketball of the 2020 calendar year. After seeing TBT create a safe environment that ended in the best way possible, with the Marquette alums lifting a trophy, I've reconsidered that notion.

Diener's only TBT Title Game Basket was the winner | Photo from TBT Staff

TBT showed that basketball is possible and the NCAA has to do everything they can to salvage the 2020-21 season. I feel this is possible and needs to be done in three phases: non-conference, conference, and postseason. All three are vital. Without non-conference play to serve as a barometer between leagues, tools like the NET are meaningless. Without conference play, we don't have the foundation for the postseason tournaments. And all of it will funnel into one oversized NCAA Tournament.

Phase I: Non-Conference Play

In COVID world, Multi-Team Events, or MTEs, such as the Maui Invitational or the Hall of Fame Tip-Off that Marquette is scheduled to play in seem impossible. Why take groups of students from all over the country, bring them to one location for a week to mix germs, then send them back? Those feel like super-spreader events. Watching TBT has changed my thinking on that, and now I believe that MTEs are the best way to have non-conference play.

 Markus Howard taking on VCU in Maui | Photo by Brian Spurlock, USA Today

According to Blogging The Bracket, there are 46 MTEs scheduled for this year. I would propose that each of those MTEs does everything they can to fill their slates. Ideally, everyone takes 8 teams. That would be more than enough for every Division I program that wants to play non-con games to get into an event. As it seems universities are planning to complete the first semester before Thanksgiving, that is when the season would start. If teams want to sit out, so be it, but this gives them all an opportunity.

Every participating team would go to their designated event for a 10-day quarantine starting on November 25. Each team would get mass testing and be kept apart and sequestered to a hotel during that time, similar to TBT. The cost of testing would be shared by the participating schools, their conferences, and the event coordinators. This will allow everyone in each event to be on a level testing ground. If a team has to be removed from an event due to positive tests, so be it, this format will allow teams to move forward even if teams have to be removed.

Games begin December 5th and go until December 20th. During that 16-day span, every team will play each other in a round robin. This should mostly allow teams to get a day or two off between games.The goal will be to play up to 7 games during this period. If tournaments are unable to fill up 8 slots or have teams disqualified due to positive tests, they can schedule additional games as the calendar allows or simply go forward with the games they are able to play.

Current non-conference arrangements will be pushed back a year unilaterally. If you have a series going or conference challenges, they all get pushed back. All the leagues will have to agree to that and accept that 2020-21 is going to be an exceptional year. For the most part, everyone should get 5-7 games. While it's not complete, it's enough data that the NET will be able to function. This is going to be critical once we get to March.

Phase II: Conference Play

From December 21st to 26th, everyone will get a brief holiday break. That's about the same as Marquette gives their players most years (December 2015 and 2017 were exactly that), so this isn't abnormal. Once the break is done, each of these teams move into their second bubble for conference play. This will start with a 9-day quarantine from December 27th to January 4th. Games will begin January 5th and go until January 24th, a 20-day stretch that takes teams right up to the start of Spring semester classes.

Koby McEwen drives at the Finneran Pavilion | Photo by Brian Hartline, USA Today

Leagues would then select another neutral site for their games. My proposal would be campus sites which are easiest to control. In the Big East, I feel the Finneran Pavilion would be the ideal site for all the games, rewarding Villanova as essentially the eternal champs of the new league and allowing for the league to have full control. Every league would be allowed to pick where they want to play their games, but it would be one static location to allow for another TBT-styled bubble.

Over these 20 days, leagues will be encouraged to get each of their teams 10 games. While it won't be much, those 10 games will be the entirety of regular season conference play. It's enough to seed conference tournaments. While it won't guarantee round-robins in leagues and some teams that are rivals won't see each other, this remains an extraordinary year. If leagues wanted to cram more games into that window, they could, but this would generally allow everyone to get the same number of games with some rest time in between games. After conference play, student-athletes would return to their respective campuses to carry on with their semester until we get to postseason play.

Phase IIIa: Conference Tournaments

This is where it gets dicey. Using the current schedule, the non-conference and conference portions of the season listed above would have minimal impact on the school year because it all happens during the extended winter break. Now that we get to the postseason, there's no real way to do this without infringing on classes and with greater infection risk. While this happens regularly throughout the year, this proposal will take some players out of classes for extended periods of time. This is where athletic directors and educators would have to earn their money and figure out the best way to address both academic and athletic needs.

 Jay Wright in a familiar position | Photo from Getty Images

Regardless, here is the plan. Leagues will select a site and have teams quarantine starting on February 27th. This allows for a 10-day quarantine with all leagues playing their tournaments between March 9th to 13th. That is a 5-day stretch that allows every league to play a full tournament. Every team will be expected to stay in the conference tournament bubble until March 14th, which will be Selection Sunday. Anyone leaving their conference tournament bubble early will be ineligible for NCAA Tournament selection.

Phase IIIb: Selection Sunday

This is where things get crazy. First of all, there will be a larger NCAA Tournament field. Because there is no NIT, the field will get a one-time expansion to 96 teams. This will also accommodate what would be a significantly larger bubble because teams won't have as many opportunities to prove themselves with 17-22 games the entire sample size. With 96 teams chosen, there is no chance anyone worthy will be left out.

 Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart heads the 2021 Selection Committee | Photo by Michael Huang

Rather than 4 regions as usual, this bracket will have 8 regions. The first 32 teams into the field will be the conference tournament winners. To minimize travel, these teams will be sorted by NET. The top 8 teams will be sent to regions in a manner that is most geographically advantageous to everyone. This process will repeat with teams 9-16, 17-24, and 25-32. So the top four seeds in each region will be conference tournament winners and they will get a bye in the first round.

The next 32 spots will go to the regular season conference champions. If a team is a double-champion, that will create another at-large bid. While it may seem this would encourage potential double-champions to lose in a conference final to get their league another bid, it would also take them out of the top-32 and a first-round bye. That alone should be motivation enough for everyone to want to play to the buzzer in their conference tournaments.

The remaining spots will all go to at-large teams. The Selection Committee will pick as many teams as necessary to fill the 96 spots. However, rather than seeding those teams, the 64 remaining teams will be allowed to pick their place in the bracket in order of final season NET rankings. This will allow for teams to choose based on travel, matchup strategy, or even based on a team they particularly want to play, maybe opening up elimination games between rivals.

The highest ranked NET team can pick any open play-in game they choose, the second highest will pick, and so on. This will create an entertaining bracket that guarantees every league gets to play in the round of 64 and powerhouse teams can try to tailor their path based on the available regions.

Phase IIIc: The Eight Regionals

On Selection Sunday, every team still remaining at a conference tournament site will be tested. 12 teams will immediately go to the 8 sites that were slated for first and second round games: Boise, Dallas, Detroit, Lexington, Providence, Raleigh, San Jose, and Wichita. As all of these teams were in conference tournament bubbles, they will go with the assumption they are healthy. In the event that any of the 96 teams heading to one of the above destinations tests positive, they can be replaced by the Selection Committee. If it is a top-32 team, the conference they represent may send a team of their choosing that tested negative on Selection Sunday. If it is an at-large team, the Selection Committee will choose the replacement from the entire field of teams that tested negative. In the event a conference is unable to send a team, the Selection Committee will choose a replacement from the field of unselected teams.

 Marquette's ideal regional would be a Detroit homecoming | Photo from gomarquette.com

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the at-large teams will play their Round of 96 games to get into the full 64-team field. On Thursday and Friday, those winners will advance to play the top-32 seeded teams in the Round of 64. On Saturday and Sunday, we get the Round of 32. Finally, on Monday and Tuesday, the 16 remaining teams will play to go to the Elite Eight with regional play wrapping up on March 23rd. Each region will then move their champions on. In the event a team tests positive after winning their regional but before the Elite Eight, their regional will be presumed infected. The highest rated NET runner-up from a healthy regional will take their place in the Elite Eight. It is unlikely, but possible in this vein that a team could lose in the Sweet 16 and still advance to the Elite Eight and even win the title. Ultimately, the product needs to be there, so someone is going to fill that spot.

Phase IIId: The Elite Eight

The regional winners will advance to Indianapolis for the final week of basketball. The challenge is that the teams still in the tournament will be in bubbles for more than a month once this is all said and done. However, more than 70% of the programs will be back on campus in just over 2 weeks and more than 97% will return to campus after about 3 weeks. Schools will need to plan out the classroom side, but it doesn't feel insurmountable for those programs. And if 97% are done in 3 weeks, having the final eight teams put in one more week doesn't seem like too big of an ask.

Marquette would try to improve on their 2013 Elite 8 effort if they made Indy | Photo from Bucks Local News

As mentioned above, these spots need to be filled. The eight regional winners will advance and simply transition from one bubble to another. If one needs to be replaced, so be it. Teams will travel to Indianapolis on Wednesday and begin play the next day. All four Elite Eight games will be played on Thursday, the Final Four will be played on Saturday, and the Championship game will be played on Monday, March 29th. Despite a 96 team tournament, it will wrap up a week earlier and we will have what is truly the Maddest March in history.

Final Thoughts

At this moment, I think this season happening is a long-shot. Our inability to stem the spread of COVID has made it realistic that we could lose two consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and the financial fallout over college sports would be devastating. While this wouldn't completely recoup those losses, it would help in many ways.

It would give everyone a chance to get some games. And the MTE non-conference style of play would likely give some television exposure to programs that don't often get it. They may need to figure out how to share that revenue, but hopefully it would help some of the programs that are already deep in the red. The conference season would be truncated, but a 15-17 game schedule for everyone that wants it would at least give teams a chance to get some games in. And with every league having the chance to send two teams, even the Ivy League or leagues like that could sit out non-con play and still make noise in March.

Finally, there are a couple of changes that I think could be positives in the long run. I think the NCAA Selection Process would be far more interesting if teams were strategically picking where they were going to play rather than just being assigned a spot. Also, I truly think that only at-large teams should be involved in the play-in games. If you win your conference tournament, you should be in the main field, period.

I hope this provides a little food for thought and would love to hear your thoughts on if this would work and if not, other ways to save the season.