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College Basketball's Exempt Tournaments: A Primer

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to look at scheduling possibilities for the 2015-16 college basketball season's crop of exempt tournaments. Before I do that, however, I wanted to publish this post as a bit of background for you, the college basketball loving public. I originally started it as a note in the first post of the series. But, then I started rambling and 1100+ words later, I figured having it stand on its own was the best course of action.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To catch up on all of the posts in this series, visit the 2015-16 Early Season Events hub.

To understand why the exempt tournaments of today are structured as they are, it helps to understand their past. Back in the day, the "two in four" rule limited Division I teams to participating in two exempt tournaments in a four-season span between the 1999-2000 and 2005-06 seasons, with exceptions allowed so teams could fulfill prior contracts. Tournament organizers naturally didn't care for this, as it restricted the number of marquee teams available to participate in their events and, thus, their profits. Coaches also disapproved, due to the scheduling limits the rule forced upon them.

After a legal battle that at one point looked headed for the Supreme Court, which declined to weigh in on the matter (like the nine justices don't have better things to do than rule on college basketball scheduling...sheesh), the NCAA eventually relented and developed a new set of rules for exempt events and how they fit into schedule development in time for the 2006-07 season.

Here there are in no particular order.

Number Of Games

Teams can schedule 29 regular season games without participating in a multi-team exempt event (MTE) or 27 and an MTE that can include no more than four games, for a total of 31. Previously, the limit was 28 games regardless with an MTE counting as one, even though it could include anywhere from two to four games. Since conference schedules encompass anywhere from 14 (Atlantic Sun and Ivy) to 20 (Metro Atlantic) games, that means by participating in an MTE, a team will need to find somewhere between seven and 13 non-conference games to complete its schedule.


Organizers are allowed to format these MTEs in multiple ways. Most still feature a bracket format, with either two or three games at a neutral site, typically over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. Virtually every tournament that features a four-team bracket at a neutral site sees a stratification of host and visiting teams, where four teams, typically from mid-major conferences, each play a pair of guarantee games on the home floors of power conference schools. The four power teams compete for a trophy, often on national TV at a neutral site, while the mid-majors have to hope to be able to pull off an upset or two for RPI purposes before they move on to their own four-team bracket, which may or may not be at the same site as the power conference event and will most likely not be on TV.

Tournaments with an eight-team "three games in three days" format (think Maui, Battle 4 Atlantis, ESPN's events in Orlando, Anaheim) have started to offer their participants a fourth game in more creative ways. Most of ESPN's events feature one or more non-bracketed games, while the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis have started "mainland" events, which provide a bracketed tournament to the quartet of mid-majors offered up as sacrificial lambs for fourth games for the eight main bracket teams, played naturally in their buildings.

However, the "non-bracketed" game approach offers up the possibility of rematches. For example, Miami defeated Charlotte twice in a 48-hour span last November as part of the Charleston Classic. The Hurricanes blew out the 49ers by 19 in the event's final on Sunday, November 23, then completed the sweep, albeit by a narrower 77-74 margin, in the pair's pre-arranged non-bracketed game at Halton Arena two nights later.

The latest trend in MTEs is round-robin events featuring four or five teams. Occasionally, these include some sort of showcase game at a neutral site (for example, this season's Pittsburgh vs. Davidson contest at Madison Square Garden as part of the Gotham Classic) but this is the exception rather than the rule. Since these events are basically ways to just get a few more games on the schedule and there isn't the intrigue that comes in a bracketed tournament, I'm ignoring these events during this series.


All four games a team participates in as part of an exempt event must be played in a two-week span. Take the Charleston Classic, for example, near the top of the 2015-16 Early Season Events Page. The first games of its 2015 bracket will be played on Thursday, November 19th, but its final non-bracketed game—George Mason at Towson—will take place on Wednesday, December 2nd.

Participation Restrictions

One very important rule that remains in place is that MTEs are conference limits—an eight-team event should include entrants from eight separate conferences. However, this has been relaxed a bit over the past few seasons due to realignment—contracts must be honored after all! The Big East's Butler and Georgetown ended up meeting three times last season because the pair met in the third-place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis months before the conference slate began.

Also, teams are only allowed to participate in a specific event once every four years. This season will see Temple's third appearance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in the tournament's nine-year history (2007, 2011, 2015). Fran Dunphy obviously sees the event as a good experience as he keeps on sending his team at the first possible opportunity to do so.
As you'll see in this series, event organizers, like ESPN Events and the Gazelle Group, have gotten wise to the "once in four years" restriction. So, they've set up enough tournaments in enough attractive places to keep teams happy (and typically on TV) during a four-year cycle. In most cases, teams sign contracts with organizers which ensure they will participate in a given number of a company's events over a set number of seasons.

Conversely, if you're interested in locking down a specific market, say New York (looking at you, Syracuse, Duke, and Notre Dame), possibilities exist to do that without running afoul of the rule.


Finally, there are two outliers with regards to the MTE rules to note. The Ivy League, bless it, still abides by the "two in four" rule, so it will be an unusual year if you see more than four of its eight members signed up for events. Harvard is the Ivy most aggressive about scheduling into exempt tourneys.

On the other hand, Hawaii always participates in two exempt tournaments per season, with three entries possible, though only one of these will actually count against the rule. The Rainbow Warriors host two MTEs at the Stan Sheriff Center—the Rainbow Classic round-robin at the start of the season, and the Diamond Head Classic (which, confusingly, replaced the old eight-team bracketed Rainbow Classic) during Christmas week. Hawaii does this to make scheduling easier for itself, and the inducement of an exempt event makes it easier to get teams to make the long trip to Honolulu. Last season, the Rainbow Warriors added a trip to the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida, which functioned as its actual exempt event for 2014-15, thanks to the home game against Hawaii-Hilo it was allowed to add as a benefit of its participation. A trip to the Thanksgiving weekend Las Vegas Invitational was supposed to fill the same role this season, but Hawaii withdrew in mid-June, to schedule more home games instead.

Other schools can, in theory, participate in more than one MTE per season—the second would just have to count as regular four games against the limit of 31 instead of one. However, this is rare. For example, Arkansas-Pine Bluff participated in both the Rainbow Classic and Las Vegas Classic last season, playing 32 total games!

I'll reference these rules, usually with examples, as the series unfolds over the rest of July.

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