Introduction to the College Basketball Champions League
It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to adopt the approach of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” with college basketball. The sport’s popularity continues to grow, and that growth has helped college athletics in general. There are complaints, but the big issues being debated (amateurism, academics, eligibility, enforcement, etc.) are not parts of the basic format of the competition. The issues with the competition itself are smaller, like the use of the RPI in selection or the possibility of a modest reduction in the number of games.
That doesn’t mean calls for major changes to basketball’s format are unheard of. One of the constants is the call to move men’s basketball to a single semester sport. Dan Wolken took up the issue, and I went into some of the tactical challenges with such a move. Even that is not a major change to the way we crown a champion, it just moves the competition around.
The main problem with college basketball is that 345 schools are fighting for one crown. If the NCAA tournament continued without change for 100 years, the majority of those 345 would never come close to winning. This fact is used as justification to remove the vast majority of teams from Division I, cutting the division to 60–100 teams. But teams you might place in the 100–200 range can get hot and win a tournament, if given the opportunity.
To provide appropriate spoils for all 345 teams while holding a premier tournament that prevents a team from being crowned champion simply by going on a relatively short winning streak, we need multiple competitions. We need the College Basketball Champions League (CBBCL) and the NCAA Cup.
First, Some Things Have to Go
It would be impossible to add a Champions League-format competition or an FA Cup-style NCAA tournament to the existing college basketball schedule. Some teams would potentially play 60–70 games. So certain elements of the college basketball season have to go in order to make room for these competitions.
First on the chopping block are conference tournaments. With all CBBCL bids being automatic bids (more on this later), deciding first, second, third, even fourth is necessary for conferences and difficult based on the results of a playoff. This cuts the schedule by two to five games depending on the conference and team.
Second, the nonconference schedule would largely be eliminated for some teams. In this version of college basketball, the conference regular season is critical. Plus we have 12–16 more games of space for the two major competitions. It would not go away completely though. For teams who are eliminated from the various competitions but play less than a certain amount of games, 30 for instance, they would be allowed to add nonconference games up to the limit.
Schools would be encouraged to have a complete schedule by team coefficients or ratings. One of the principal tools for seeding the CBBCL and NCAA Cup would be a team rating based on all non-conference competition. The rating system would be designed to greatly reward teams who advance in the two competitions, help out good teams who suffered early elimination or did not qualify for the CBBCL, and hammer teams who do not complete a schedule.
Given the additional revenues that would flow to all conferences as a result of the CBBCL, the loss of conference tournaments should at least be offset. And by tweaking the rating system, teams on the outside looking in can be encouraged to schedule a mix of guarantee games and higher profile non-conference matchups.
Second, Some Other Things Have to Change
Because qualification for the CBBCL is based on the previous year’s results, an additional eligibility rule would need to be added. Student-athletes who help their team qualify for the CBBCL in their final year of eligibility would be granted an additional season. The additional eligibility could be for all games or just the CBBCL. The student-athletes may need to go to class or not. It could be limited to student-athletes who have graduated or student-athletes who have never participated in the CBBCL before. Teams may need to fit these student-athletes into current financial aid limits or be given additional scholarships for the CBBCL.
The season would also need to be longer. CBBCL and NCAA Cup games are designed to be big events. They would be played midweek, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, with conference games played Saturday and Sunday. There would not be the month-long intense period we have throughout March where some teams play five games in five days followed by two games a week separated by one day. Schools would be encouraged though to pack as many games as possible during winter break. This all reduces missed class time, which could be an issue as teams play major intersectional games during the week throughout the season. Charter flights paid for by the CBBCL or NCAA Cup could help this.
Finally, schools need to accept a different model of competitive equity. One of the major pushes from the NCAA has been for schools to think about competing within a conference rather than mid-majors trying to compete with schools that have budgets an order of magnitude larger. But at-large bids mean if a school is not striving to keep up with BCS athletic departments, the team goes from having 38 chances to make the NCAA tournament to having one. Not so with the CBBCL and NCAA Cup. The number of possible CBBCL bids a team is fighting over ranges from one to four. UAB and Alabama are no longer fighting over the same pool of at-large bids. And even teams who start at the very beginning of the NCAA Cup still have a manageable schedule to win the whole thing.
With that administrivia out of the way, let’s move on to the competitions.
Not to be forgotten or have its importance overlooked is the conference season. This model of college basketball assumes a maximum conference schedule of 18 games, and provides space to play all 18 games without playing more than two games per week during the entire season. Conference games are typically played on the weekend, although the NCAA Cup occasionally moves to the weekend so as to cut down on travel during the week and to mix up the rhythm of conference and intersectional competition.
Ideally, all conferences would be 10 teams and play a home-and-home schedule. But as conferences grow, we’re likely to see 18-game unbalanced schedules or perhaps a 15-game single round robin in 16-team conferences. Or, perhaps the unique nature of the NCAA Cup and CBBCL competitions is the impetus to break basketball away from football and prevent teams from being drawn into larger, ever more diverse conferences based on a different sport.
The NCAA Cup
The NCAA Cup is a single elimination, knockout competition modeled after the FA Cup that includes every single member of Division I. The tournament is 13 rounds: 1 play-in game (if necessary), 6 qualifying rounds and 6 “proper rounds”, to use the British parlance. For the sake of clarity, the round that was the Third Round Proper in the FA Cup will just be the first round on this side of the pond.
If all 345 teams are eligible (the NCAA Cup and CBBCL would be the “postseason” that teams are banned from for violations or poor APR performance), the competition starts with a play-in game between the two teams that finished last season on the bottom of the rating or coefficient system used. From then on, groups of teams are added to the competition, according to this schedule:
- First Qualifying Round: Play-in winner and teams rated 209–343
- Second Qualifying Round: 68 winners from previous round and teams rated 117–208
- Third Qualifying Round: 80 winners from previous round (no new teams enter)
- Fourth Qualifying Round: 40 winners from previous round and teams rated 93–116
- Fifth Qualifying Round: 32 winners from previous round and teams rated 45–92
- Sixth Qualifying Round: 40 winners from previous round (no new teams enter)
- First Round: 20 winners from previous round and teams rated 1–44
What’s surprising is how closely this tracks to the existing NCAA Tournament. The 20 teams that fought their way through one or more qualifying rounds are roughly equivalent to the 20 mid-major teams that must win conference tournaments to make the dance. The 44 teams that start in the first round are likely to be the same 44 teams that would win the power conferences or be selected as at-large teams. The main tournament kicks off with a round of 64, with another round of 64 teams in the Fourth Qualifying Round. The Second Qualifying Round will be the Bracketbusters to end all Bracketbusters, 80 games with the winners knowing that their opponents are guaranteed to have played in the previous round, not a fresh team from a higher group in the ratings.
Rather than start with a play-in round followed by a round of 256, the tournament expands and contracts during the qualifying rounds for two reasons. First, with no more than 80 games each round, even the early rounds are easier to follow and easier to televise. Trying to provide a broadcast of 128 games that includes all sorts of different matchups is a broadcast nightname. Second, it provides a major incentive for strong scheduling and cuts down on the number of games for top teams, who are likely to be in the CBBCL as well.
Rather than creating one of the largest and most complicated brackets in sports history, games will be assigned by random draw. Teams from the same conference can be drawn against each other, and in the early qualifying rounds costs could be contained by conducting a set of regional draws instead of one national draw. Hosting would be by draw to, with the first team pulled hosting the second team in each paid. That means whether Western Kentucky hosts UK or the Hilltoppers journey to Rupp Arena is based purely on chance. Those draws would all be televised, creating a set of Selection Sundays that continues all the way up until the semifinals.
All rounds would be on campus sites until the semifinals, which will be played the current weekend of the Final Four. The finals will be held two days later, creating a big event weekend. The last two rounds would be played every year in Indianapolis, home of college sports, and a city with such a great reputation hosting big events that people are wondering if the Final Four should be held there every year. In this plan it would be. Well, one of the Final Fours would be.
The College Basketball Champions League
The College Basketball Champions League (CBBCL) would be the premier college basketball competition. It would consist of the following stages:
- A qualifying stage of up to three rounds;
- A group stage over six weeks;
- A knockout stage of four rounds.
The CBBCL as currently configured would consist of 56–58 teams. All bids to the CBBCL would be automatic bids based on winning or finishing high in your conference. A rating or coefficient system would be used on the conference level, and would be based solely on a conference’s performance in the CBBCL. As a proxy for this rating system, the performance of conferences in the NCAA tournament over the last six years was used, which the NCAA helpfully tracks for revenue distribution purposes. Bids are given as follows:
- Big East, Big 12, Big Ten: 4 (3 in group stage, 1 in league playoff round)
- ACC, Pac 12: 3 (2 in group stage, 1 in league playoff round)
- SEC: 3 (2 in group stage, 1 in league qualifying round)
- A–10, MW, CAA, C-USA, Horizon, MVC, WCC: 2 (1 in group stage, 1 in league playoff round)
- Sun Belt, WAC: 2 (1 in champion playoff round, 1 in league qualifying round)
- OVC, SoCon, Big South, Ivy, MAAC, Southland, Big Sky, MAC, NEC, Patriot, SWAC, Am. East, A-Sun: 1 in champion qualifying round
- Big West, MEAC, Summit, Great West: 1 in champion play-in round
- Defending CBBCL Champ: 1 reserved in group stage
- Defending NCAA Cup Champ: 1 reserved in champ qualifying round
That looks incredibly complicated, but it is simpler when broken down. 22 teams go straight into the group stages. The other 37 teams go through one of two qualifying paths: one for teams that won smaller conference and one for teams which finished well in stronger leagues. Each qualifying group is fighting over five spots in the group stage for a total of 32 teams.
The league qualifying path consists of a qualifying round involving 10 teams, then the winners playing five teams in the playoff round. The five survivors then go into the group stage. On the champions side, the winners of the four lowest-rated conference start in the first qualifying round. The victors join 12 teams in the second qualifying round, with seven winners added to three teams who start in the playoff round. Those five winners join the group stage. Here’s another way to put it:
- League Qualifying Path: Qualifying Round (10 teams) -> Playoff Round (5 teams plus 5 winners from previous round) -> Group Stage
- Champions Qualifying Path: 1st Qualifying Round (4 teams) -> 2nd Qualifying Round (12 teams plus 2 winners from previous round) -> Playoff Round 3 teams plus 7 winners from previous round)
In each qualifying round, half the teams will be seeded based on our team rating or coefficient, and their opponents drawn from the unseeded half. All qualifying rounds and all knockout rounds through the quarterfinals are played as two game, home-and-home series that are decided on aggregate, or the total score of the two games. The first leg will be played at the unseeded team, with the seeded team hosting the second leg. Individual games can end in ties, but if the series is tied at the end of 80 minutes, there will be no “away points” rule. Instead overtime will start just like normal.
There are two additional spots reserved for the defending champions of the CBBCL and the NCAA Cup. Those spots are only used if the winners of those competition fail to qualify through their conference for the CBBCL. In that case, they are inserted into the competition at the given point and teams are reshuffled to accommodate.
Following the maze of qualifying is the group stage, which is preceded by, you guessed it, a live draw, likely the biggest and grandest draw of the season. In this draw, teams are seeded into four pots based on their rating or coefficient. Teams are drawn into eight groups of four, with each group having one team from each pot. Teams from the same conference would not be in the same group.
The group stage has each team playing the others in its group home and away for a total of six matches. The matches would be played midweek, throughout January and February. There would be no ties in the group stage, each game would have a winner and some complex system of tiebreakers would be used.
The winner and runner-up of each group then advances to the knockout rounds, starting with a Sweet Sixteen. The group winners are drawn against the runners-up, with teams from the same conference still prevented from playing each other. In the quarter- and semifinals, the draws would be unseeded and no restrictions on who plays whom. In the round of 16 and quarter finals, teams play home and away, with ties and aggregate scoring just like the qualifying rounds.
The semifinal and final, now single elimination, would be played at a neutral site which cities would bid on like the Final Four. The CBBCL’s final weekend would be one week after the NCAA Cup Final Four. This creates two huge college basketball weekends during a major lull in the sports calendar.
How A Season Works
This all sounds like a lot but it fits into a season that, at least superficially, looks a lot like the current basketball season and has as much if not more respect for student-athlete welfare. Here’s how the season might go, using real dates for 2012–13.
Practice starts on October 1, two weeks earlier than normal. The season kicks off with four games on Wednesday, October 24, 2012: the NCAA Cup Play-In Game, the first legs of the two CBBCL Champions 1st Qualifying Round series, and the College Shield, an exhibition game between the previous year’s winners of the CBBCL and NCAA Cup. That weekend is the First Qualifying Round of the NCAA Cup. On October 30, the second game of those CBBCL series are played, with the Second Qualifying Round occurring the following weekend.
Champions League qualifying swells to include all the teams that enter in the qualifying round, and conference play kicks off in earnest the first weekend in November. November 13–15, traditionally the first week of the college basketball season, is packed with the second game of CBBCL qualifying series and the Third Qualifying Round of the NCAA Cup. November ends with the Playoff Round of CBBCL qualifying and some weekend NCAA Cup games in the Fourth Qualifying Round. The first portion of the college basketball schedule ends with the CBBCL Group Stage Draw on December 5.
The schedule is lighter in the middle of December as schools break for finals, but this gives plenty of room to get some of the conference schedule out of the way once exams are done.. January is when the basketball season truly gains steam, with the First Round of the NCAA Cup followed by six straight weeks of CBBCL group stage games. The NCAA Cup takes a long break and returns to mix in with the CBBCL knockout rounds in late February.
The conference season ends March 24, leaving the schedule wide open for the quarterfinals of the two competitions, culminating with NCAA Cup Final Four on April 4 and 6, followed by the semifinals and finals of the CBBCL on April 11 and 13.
All told, the season starts about three weeks earlier and ends one week later. The season includes enough open dates to play 18 conference games without playing more than two games per week. This assumes no teams play conference games during periods reserved for CBBCL or NCAA Cup games. But in reality, only a small minority of teams are ever playing in each competition at one time, so those dates would be open for most teams.
Finally there is the question of how many games this all includes. As a reference, in 2010–11 UConn played 41 games (plus two exhibitions) in winning the Big East tournament and NCAA championships. Under this system, a team could theoretically play 49 games, but that’s practically impossible. It would require a conference champion from the previous year who was also one of the two lowest rated teams in the country, and then went on to the finals of both the CBBCL and NCAA Cup. Power teams who start at the CBBCL group stage and bypass NCAA Cup qualifying will play a maximum of 36 games, less than most current Final Four teams.
Next up: you have questions, so I will have answers.