I have a vision of the greatest moment in college basketball history. It’s the first round of the men’s NCAA tournament, and Duke is on the ropes. But the Blue Devils aren’t struggling against a dangerous no. 14 seed that dominated its conference, or a no. 15 seed with a future NBA star on its roster. In this vision, Duke is struggling against the tournament’s no. 337 seed, a team that went 4-14 in the Ohio Valley Conference. It’s a vision that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski could help make a reality, as he has reportedly spearheaded a push to include every eligible Division I men’s basketball team—all 346 of them—in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Statement from Mike Krzyzewski, on why he's in favor of an all-inclusive NCAA Tournament in 2021: "This is not a regular season. It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative."— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) September 9, 2020
This week, the ACC’s head coaches reportedly voted unanimously to propose an “all-inclusive” 2021 NCAA tournament. They don’t have the power to make such a tournament happen—only the NCAA does—but there’s reason to believe that the association will consider the idea. While it may sound like one of the most radical proposals in recent sports history, it actually isn’t dissimilar from how college basketball’s existing postseason works. Beyond that, it could help solve some of the unique problems facing college basketball during a time of pandemic. The Sweet 16 is old news; bring on the Terrific 256.
From a strictly financial perspective, college athletic departments can’t afford to go without the 2021 NCAA tournament. The unprecedented cancellation of the 2020 event cost the NCAA more than half a billion dollars, which in turn cost schools about $375 million.
But college athletic departments can afford to lose or condense the men’s basketball regular season. College football seems set to carry on without most smaller conferences, which financially makes sense. The sport has long generated money from marquee games between big-name programs. But college basketball can’t use this approach. The most-watched college basketball game last regular season would’ve been the 97th-most-watched college football game in 2019. While fans are often most interested in a sport’s most famous and well-known teams, college basketball thrives when teams that fans have never heard of topple the perennial powers. College football’s most famous teams can play a season without the little guys and few will notice; a college basketball season without a potential Cinderella barely seems worth caring about.
Of course, it would be hard to find a Cinderella in a shortened season. Some leagues have already postponed all sports until January. Reports say that the season will start no sooner than January; others say that this college basketball season will take place without nonconference games. Smaller programs depend on payouts from nonconference games against bigger schools to make ends meet. Why would those potential Cinderellas play a season without paychecks—especially when the NCAA tournament selection committee typically excludes teams from smaller conferences whenever it can?
An all-inclusive NCAA tournament has the ability to address these concerns. The selection committee wouldn’t need to make exclusionary choices if every team is invited. Teams from smaller schools would have plenty of reason to play if they would automatically be included in the tourney field. It also seems like it would be easier to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by playing a mega tournament at centralized and contained sites rather than carrying out a prolonged regular season.
The truth is, college basketball already has a single-elimination tournament featuring almost every team in the sport. The NCAA tournament provides auto bids to the champions of all 32 Division I conferences. Those leagues determine their champions via single-elimination conference tournaments. When 15-14 Charleston Southern played 6-25 USC Upstate in the first round of the 2020 Big South men’s tournament, for example, both teams were hypothetically in the running to win the national championship. They just had to win four games to capture the Big South title, and six (or seven) more to win the NCAA tournament. By the same token, the Bermuda national soccer team is set to play Aruba next month in the hopes of eventually winning the FIFA World Cup. The difference is that FIFA considers that matchup part of FIFA World Cup qualifying, while the Big South tournament is considered just the Big South tournament. The idea, it seems, is to change that by rebranding conference championship week as the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Plan would turn conference championship week into the opening round of the Big Dance. From there the field is reduced to 64-68 by the following week.— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) September 9, 2020
We don’t fully understand the logistics of how this would work. Would the power conferences still have conference tournaments? Would your office pool now include the full 346-team mega bracket, even if part of that was just a rebranded Big South tournament? Would ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi finally be freed from the Bracket Bunker, where, from my understanding, he has spent most of his adult life?
Any idea along these lines would be a lot less sexy and more sensible than my dreams of a MegaBracket, but I would like it nonetheless. Conference tournament week is almost as fun as the NCAA tournament itself, and officially combining the two would lend prestige and national attention to some of the tournaments in smaller leagues.
An all-inclusive NCAA tournament would make the sport the money it desperately needs while avoiding some of the pitfalls of a season played amid a pandemic, all while bringing prominence back to the smaller teams and leagues that make March Madness mad. I say that we embrace it—and the vision of Duke on the ropes against the no. 337 seed.