This is the final part in a three-part series on how college basketball can attempt to hold a season and NCAA Tournament in 2021. Gary Parrish's look at the regular season can be found here. Matt Norlander's scrupulous blueprint for how to host and execute the NCAA Tournament ran Wednesday. Today's final installment specifically addresses the different bracket formats and sizes the NCAA needs to prepare for.
We're minimally seven months away from having a tournament and there's truly no telling what will or won't be possible by March 2021. Still, the NCAA and its basketball selection committees need to be prepared with multiple bracket formats weeks if not months before January arrives. This goes for men's and women's hoops. I've brainstormed eight models. Remember, regardless of when they're played, all iterations below would/should be held in Indianapolis or a site with highly similar hosting capabilities for all teams eligible.
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Just this one thing before I get to the various 2021 bracket configurations ...
Eliminate conference tournaments
We're going back to the 1940s by killing all league tourneys for 2021.
It is needless to tempt fate by inviting unnecessary risk. Conference tourneys would necessitate who-knows-how-many schools to take flights to play in league tournaments, let alone more team-vs.-team interaction. Plus, without fans in 2021 most if not all league tournaments don't stand to be significantly profitable -- if profitable at all -- to their conferences.
The upshot: the 2020-21 campaign will bring the most urgency and relevancy to college basketball's regular season in decades by awarding the regular-season conference champion an automatic bid. Leagues will determine tiebreakers (including a one-game or three-way playoff) if applicable.
If there is some inter-conference play that can be achieved, Selection Sunday would commence four or five days after the end of the regular season to afford the committee its usual window to allow for seeding and selection. Teams would depart for the NCAA Tournament the day after Selection Sunday. Head into quarantine and by the end of the following week you've got the NCAA Tournament starting in earnest. Greg Gumbel on your TV at noon sharp; feel the chills.
Possible 2021 NCAA Tournament formats
1. A 68-team tournament
We will start with the mold essentially everyone hopes we get. The tournament format that's been in place since 2011, the one we're all familiar and comfortable with and ...
You know what?
Nah. Sixty-eight is NOT HAPPENING IN 2021. I've been bothered by it for a decade and get it out of my face. No, we are going back to how it always should be.
2. A 64-team tournament
Our gorgeous old friend. Look at you. For the first time since 2000, the NCAA Tournament returns to its rightful, flawless form. In the midst of a pandemic, there is no need for the filler of bringing four more teams in for a First Four. Sixty-four, baby. I want it, you want it, almost everyone that isn't a coach wants it. If there is nonconference play, all the better and the committee can mostly use its normal principles for seeding and selecting, even if we get varying game totals per team and league. If it's intra-league only, then the committee should consider using historical at-large data for conferences to help allot bids. (That's another column.)
Most importantly, the selection committee needs to embrace flexibility in this process. If we're lucky enough to get a regular season in 2021, then relaxing or giving some bracketing protocols just a little twist will need to be embraced.
I previously promised you a schedule for a 14-day tournament. Time to give up the goods. Yes, you can play a 64-team tourney safely in a two-week span. These are 18-to-22-year-olds who have long since been accustomed to playing well over six games in a weekend's time in high school, let alone a fortnight. Here is your 2021 NCAA Tournament schedule, which can be shortened by one or two days if necessary if fewer than 64 teams participate:
- Day 1: First round games for 32 teams on left side of the bracket
- Day 2: First round games for 32 teams on right side of the bracket
- Day 3: Second round games for the 16 winners from Day 1
- Day 4: Second round games for 16 winners from Day 2
—— AT THIS POINT, 16 TEAMS REMAIN ——
- Day 5: OFF
- Day 6: Sweet 16 games on left side of the bracket
- Day 7: Sweet 16 games on right side of the bracket
- Day 8: Elite Eight games on left side of the bracket
- Day 9: Elite Eight games on right side of the bracket
- Day 10: OFF
- Day 11: OFF
- Day 12: Final Four
- Day 13: OFF
- Day 14: National title game
If this goes down in Indy, the national semis and title game would be held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight would be played in the Indianapolis metro area at the city's three big basketball venues: Bankers Life, Hinkle and Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
3. A 48-team tournament
In this storyline, every league that holds a regular season and crowns a champion is awarded a bid. At most this would be 32 automatic bids, at least it could be 19 or 24 or 29. Who knows? But the remaining at-larges would be determined by the selection committee in whatever process is determined most even-handed. Keep in mind that metrics will be handcuffed with limited "cross-pollination" in noncon play -- and practically plotless without nonleague games at all. (Again, a column for another day.)
In a 48-team tournament, the teams slotted 1 through 16 by the committee would earn byes into the round of 32. The No. 1 overall seed would play the winner of the teams seeded 32nd and 33rd. No. 2 would play the winner of 31 vs. 34. No. 3 would face off vs. either No. 30 or 35 and so on. This would go on until the last team to earn a bye, the 16th overall seed, would face the winner of No. 17 vs. No. 48.
In this scenario, you still have six rounds and the schedule detailed above would stay the same. Once the first round is completed, we would have a 32-team single-elimination field throughout. The NCAA last held a 48-team tournament in 1982.
4. A 40-team tournament
Four regions with 10 teams apiece. Let's not concern ourselves right now with why 40 instead of 48, but rather just account for it if it's needed in the 11th hour. Every tournament format in this story except for the last one has been used by the NCAA before.
In the event a 40-teamer is the move, you would have teams seeded No. 7 through No. 10 in each region be involved in play-in-type games. That part of the tournament would look similar to the bracket we all know today: the 8/9 winner would play No. 1 and the 7/10 winner would play No. 2 in each region. All teams seeded first through sixth would not play on Day 1 or Day 2. This format would also fit the same inside a 14-day window, with the 7/10 and 8/9 games occupying the first two days before the second round started presumably on a Saturday. The NCAA last held a 40-team tournament in 1979.
5. An all-auto-bid 32-team tournament
Now we're talking. I admit this is almost certainly never going to happen, but right here I put on the table the absolute most urgency possible that could ever be delivered to college basketball's regular season. This would be a callback to the 1960s: You don't make the NCAA Tournament unless you win your league. All of the weight baked into college football's schedule would shift over to college basketball. Coaches would be absolutely furious; some might retire on the spot. It'd be great.
In order for this to work, all 32 leagues would need to be on board to play a season and accept whatever curveballs with delays or forfeits that might come. There would have to be some reworking with NCAA Tournament units (the money paid out to conferences for wins in the bracket) as well. It's a long shot, but we'd never have a college basketball season mean more or an NCAA Tournament be more egalitarian.
6. An all-at-large-bid 32-team tournament
If you were to build a 32-team tournament that didn't give auto bids to every conference, then you probably can't give auto bids to any conference. (Upshot: conference tournaments definitely don't happen in this scenario.) Now, the benefit to a 32-team bracket is that you inherently remove a lot of risk by axing half the field while only losing one round of competition. But that said: it's the biggest round of competition in terms of game inventory (32 of 'em). If you do that, you can also reduce the schedule from 14 days down to 10 or even seven.
Yes, seven. The NAIA's annual men's basketball tournament is 32 teams and is held over seven days. This is that schedule.
Day 1: First round games on left side of bracket
Day 2: First round games on right side of bracket
Day 3: All Sweet 16 games
Day 4: All Elite Eight games
Day 5: OFF
Day 6: Final Four
Day 7: Championship
You can stretch that to 10 days and it's probably the best blend.
If we go all-at-large 32, it's not without its issues. Are smaller leagues just eliminated from consideration without nonconference play? If that's the case, what is the cutoff and how do you determine it if you can't measure leagues against each other if nonconference play doesn't exist next season? This intriguing type of tournament format is exactly why the NCAA should and probably will wait on its final tournament template until after the season begins. The NCAA last held a 32-team tournament in 1978.
7. A 16-to-25-team tournament
Twenty-five teams? Did you know: the NCAA Tournament was made up of 25 teams from 1969-1974. And from 1953-1968 it fluctuated between 22 and 25 teams. All of these formats will be dictated by the environment the country is in for the first three months of 2021. If we're only able to have a 16- or 24/25-team tournament, it means one of two things:
- Too many leagues opted out of playing in 2021
- Spikes in coronavirus cases force the NCAA to dwindle the size, and perhaps location, of the tournament less than a month before its scheduled start
Either way, a tournament this small would be adopted only after the season begins. I can't see this being a starting point because the entire premise of all this is based on a regular season happening. Short of that, all of this is vaporized. But even in a dismal scenario where, say, only 10 leagues commit to playing a season, the NCAA would still at the very least target a 32-team tournament from the outset.
There is one fun tournament twist if we have 25 or fewer teams: broadcast partners CBS and Turner could be looking for more game tonnage, so to meet those wants: every round is a best-of-three. Yes, it goes against the do-or-die nature of the NCAA Tournament, but in a 16-team, one-year-only tournament scenario you could have a maximum of 45 games. Plus, this would also bring more equity to a season that could be limited to regular-season games in the teens. The NCAA last held a 16-team tournament in 1952, and that's as low as the NCAA will go. On the flip side ...
8. A 96-team tournament
WARNING, WARNING: DO NOT DO THIS, NCAA. DON'T EVER DO THIS. To be clear, from what I understand, this option is not even being considered. Nor should it. I'm not kidding. The only way a 96'er could be broached is if the regular season was so corrupted by fits and starts, by forfeits and delays, that the NCAA decided to go to a one-year-only (I REPEAT: ONE YEAR ONLY AND PREFERABLY IN AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE FROM OUR OWN) 96-team field and in doing so awarded a minimum of two bids to all leagues participating. Then slot all remaining at-large bid quotas based on historical league performance. Two bids per league would get you to a maximum of 64, then leave 32 more up for grabs.
But seriously: don't do it. The tournament has never once expanded and then shrunk in size. Don't tempt fate. DO NOT DO THIS, NCAA. I'M GOING AGAINST EVERYTHING IN MY DNA BY EVEN PUTTING THIS OPTION OUT THERE.
Also, if you want to get 96 teams into the postseason in a different way, put 64 in the NCAA Tournament and add the other 32 for the NIT, which is its standard format. The top x-number of teams in the NIT would be at the ready to get the call-up to the NCAA Tournament should teams in the Big Dance bow out due to virus-mandated forfeits.
So that's the first tour of it all. If you made it this far, you're like me: you love the NCAA Tournament and will take it in just about any way, any form in 2021. Mark Emmert and everyone connected to college basketball in Indianapolis need to have mockups made by now to give us a chance at dodging a repeat of last March's catastrophe.