The NCAA Division I Council ruled on Wednesday that the 2020-21 college basketball season can begin Nov. 25, but many other details about how the campaign will play out remain up in the air. Primary among those is the nature of the 2021 NCAA tournament, with both the 68-team men’s event and 64-team women’s event subject to alterations in number of teams, sites, selection process and myriad other factors.
From our vantage point in mid-September, we asked ESPN men’s tournament bracketologist Joe Lunardi and his women’s tourney counterpart, Charlie Creme, to weigh in on the biggest issues surrounding the tournament.
The NCAA Division I council voted Wednesday that the men’s and women’s college basketball seasons could start Nov. 25. With nonconference games now a possibility, do you think the men’s and women’s selection committee’s jobs just got easier or harder?
Joe Lunardi: In general terms, more data points are better than fewer. In college basketball, team evaluations will be considerably better if nonconference games are part of the mix. The committee is already making a host of comparisons that are not apples-to-apples. A disparity in the number of nonleague games played per team adds a wrinkle, but it’s far better than having no nonleague games at all. Put me in the camp that the committees will handle these complications appropriately. If not, Charlie and I are just a phone call away!
Charlie Creme: The more games, the easier the evaluation process. An already thankless job would be excruciating if committee members had only conference games to evaluate. The debates already rage about the merits of a 13-3 record in the SEC vs. a 14-4 record in the ACC. Imagine if that’s all there is to scrutinize.
My biggest concern in the past couple of months has been the plight of the mid-major if there are no nonleague games. The Gonzaga women, for example, would be a preseason Top 25 team, but how would the selection committee evaluate the Zags if they had only games against other teams in the WCC? That conference, for the most part, has struggled to keep up with Gonzaga over the past few seasons. Teams from the non-Power 5 leagues would end the regular season with no games against NCAA tournament-caliber competition, thus their seed or even inclusion in the field might be compromised. At least four to six weeks of nonconference games would give them a chance.
The notion of reduced NCAA tournament fields figures to be on the table for months to come, depending on the nation’s handle on the spread of coronavirus and the sport’s ability to adhere to testing and travel protocols. What would the implications be if the tournaments were reduced to, say, 32 teams each?
Lunardi: It seems to me that a 32-team field would be an all-or-nothing proposition. As in, only the current 32 automatic qualifiers make it, or there are no automatic qualifiers and the committee selects what it thinks are the best 32 teams regardless of conference affiliation. The former would completely change the nature of the tournament in the short term, and the latter would accelerate the long-term fear of a Division I divorce in which the power conferences move out.
Creme: I applaud the NCAA for publicly saying and (at least for now) planning on having full 68- and 64-team fields. Any hybrid of the two scenarios Joe laid out above would create a chaotic, confusing mess of a process, leaving those two as the only realistic conclusions to a 32-team-field decision. Neither is good.
Imagine this situation for the women: Each league gets only one representative to the NCAA tournament, and UConn and DePaul tie for the Big East regular-season title, each beating the other for their only losses. A tiebreaker is needed, and way down the list of the Big East’s predetermined tiebreaker guidelines, the Blue Demons earn the title and the conference’s only spot in the NCAA tournament. In other words, the Huskies, who might have dominated every other team they played, don’t make the field.
There figures to be a lot of forthcoming debate about conference tournaments, the need for them and the safety of them. What would the implications be for the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments if there were no conference tourneys?
Lunardi: There used to be a really wild thing in college basketball. Conference champions were determined by the teams that won the most games in the regular season. It was more important to be good for three months than three days. As a bracketologist, I think it wouldn’t be the end of the world if conference tournaments took a year off. Use the extra week or two to bring each conference closer to a true round-robin. But as a fan, I would really miss them!
Creme: Loving college basketball means loving lots and lots of games. The two weeks in which the men’s and women’s conference tournaments are played are a feast of hoops that is the dream of the die-hard. So yes, I would miss them from that standpoint, but for this one unique year, I would be OK with — and even suggest — going without them.
If the country is still dealing with virus-spreading concerns, why add more travel and another layer of stringent testing needs to these already taxed programs? Regular-season championships are really a more legitimate representation of a team’s worthiness, anyway (which takes on even more significance if the tournament fields shrink). Take this opportunity to reward what is earned over the course of the season.
In a year that seems certain to include fewer data points for the committee to rely upon in making selections, would you devise any new guidelines for the committee? Do you think we need “basketball people” on the committees, in addition to the administrators who usually select the field?
Lunardi: There will be more than enough data points in the cases that matter most. For better or worse, schools with resources for testing and private travel are going to play the full allotment of games (or very close to it). Teams in smaller conferences may play fewer games — maybe even far fewer — but those are one-bid leagues to begin with, so building a potential at-large résumé is moot. If the committee can’t make do with a 27-game sample (plus conference tourney) instead of 31-plus, it’s in the wrong business. All it takes are 10 people with common sense.
Creme: Some years I feel as though 10 people in that selection room is already too many. Adding more voices will only muddy the waters. We need clarity, not more scattered opinion. Joe has advocated for years that teams should have to finish above .500 in their conferences to be eligible for at-large selection. This is the year to make that a rule, even if it is just temporary. If just a few or no nonconference games are played, then perhaps this becomes a de facto rule anyway. A team that doesn’t finish above .500 in its league is going to have a tougher time being over .500 overall. So let’s take away any remaining ambiguity and make .500 a requirement.