College basketball is in a bit of disarray.
After canceling the NCAA Tournament last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 season is also in jeopardy. Several leagues, including the Pac-12, have postponed all athletic competition until Jan. 1, meaning that it’s currently up in the air whether non-conference games will be able to happen.
If the entirety of Division I chose to move to conference-only basketball schedules, it would have a trickle-down effect within the entire sport. When you remove opportunities for mid-major teams to score upsets against higher-quality opponents, how can the NCAA Tournament Committee possibly evaluate non-power conference teams?
The 15 men’s basketball coaches in the ACC think they have their solution: an all-inclusive, 346-team tournament.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Every Division I program eligible for the NCAA Tournament this year would qualify, with the opening rounds replacing conference tournaments. Early seeding would be geography-based, and after the first week of play, the tournament would resemble its usual field of 64-68 teams.
This idea certainly has its positives. For one, it makes up for the fact that the tournament was canceled last year by allowing every team an opportunity to play in the tournament. Additionally, it would incentivize players not to opt-out, as they would be guaranteed an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Perhaps the most convincing argument for the NCAA will be money, though. Canceling the tournament last year hurt the coffers big-time, and focusing what will certainly be a mess of a season around what is already by far the most profitable component of college basketball would be an understandable move.
But logistically, this idea is a disaster.
First of all, it requires an improvement in the state of the pandemic within the United States.
Though the NBA seems to be managing its bubble with success, the NBA bubble only had 22 teams at its peak. Increasing that number by almost 16 times would require an unprecedented level of organization and preparation.
The number of people that would need to be tested and quarantined would be in the thousands, and all that effort would result in half of those people being sent home after one game of basketball.
Additionally, while the NCAA would likely see a revenue increase as a result of the expanded tournament, it almost certainly wouldn’t offset the drastic increase in expenses that would be required to make such a setup work.
Not to mention that setting up a 346-team bracket would be an exhausting and confusing ordeal, and the fact remains that the vast majority of teams in the tournament would have virtually no shot at winning a title.
Though college hoops fans are likely salivating at the idea of an expanded tournament, the logistical hurdles simply seem too large to overcome.
So, what alternatives remain? CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander presents an interesting hypothetical.
What if instead of ending the year with a massive tournament, the NCAA decided to bookend the season with tournaments? The NCAA Tournament would remain in its usual format, but the season would begin with 11 nonconference, 32-team tournaments in late November and December.
Making these tournaments double-elimination would provide each team with roughly a third of the nonconference games of a usual season, and it would help ease the burden of the tournament committee when deciding which mid-major teams are worthy of making the big dance.
Norlander’s solution may not be feasible, either, but it seems to be a more workable path than what the ACC is currently suggesting.
No matter what, though, this college basketball season will certainly be extraordinarily atypical. And while we don’t yet know how the season will be altered so it can be played (if it can be played) in a post-COVID world, it seems like a safe bet that it will be significantly altered to some degree.