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College Basketball Exempt Tournaments 101

While we haven't technically reached the dog days of summer, the term certainly describes this point of college basketball's offseason. To help pass the time until Friday, November 11th arrives, I'm going to spend the next several weeks looking at various aspects of scheduling for the 2016-17 season. First up, a long series numerous events that populate the first two months of the season. And to start that, I'll look at why exempt tournaments have grown into such an important and dominant part of the college basketball landscape.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

To catch up on all of the posts in this series visit the 2016-17 Early Season Events hub.

Editor's note: This post is an expansion (and improvement) upon last season's introductory piece.

If you look back at any Division I team's season-by-season record, you'll quickly realize that tournament play in November and December has long been part of college basketball scheduling. However, the creation of events like the Great Alaska Shootout (1978) and Maui Invitational (1984) added a tourism aspect, turning holiday tournaments' into college basketball's equivalent of football's bowl season. By the time the late 90s rolled around, these tournaments had gained exemptions from the NCAA's annual game limit (hence the term "exempt tournament") to encourage participation.

In 1999, the NCAA decided that while the party wasn't over, it needed some policing. Much like bowl games, exempt events tended to work to the benefit of Division I's power conference members at the expense of everyone else. The governing body decided it was time to make participation in this cottage industry a bit more equitable.

The "Two In Four" Rule

Starting with the 1999-2000 season, the NCAA limited Division I teams to playing in only two exempt tournaments—or to match the governing body's terminology "multiple-team events"—over a four-year span, though a school could fulfill any contracts already in place. Organizers protested that this was a restraint of trade, as their profits were limited by the inability to invite marquee teams on a regular basis. Some events folded. Others, like the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, changed their formats on a regular basis so they could keep on inviting teams they felt were more attractive to spectators, both in the arena and on TV. Coaches also despised the scheduling limits the rule placed upon them.

After a long legal battle, including a punt by the Supreme Court in 2003, the NCAA finally relented in time for the 2006-07 season. The result is the current set of basketball scheduling rules, bylaw 17.3.5 in the NCAA Division I Manual.

29, 30, Or 31

These are the three most important numbers in college basketball scheduling. After the exclusion of permitted closed scrimmages and exhibition games against teams from outside of Division I, virtually all teams' slates will reach a total of 29, 30, or 31 games before conference tournament play begins.

The difference stems from the two clauses of Rule in the NCAA Division I Manual.

If a team elects to play in an exempt event, it can play 27 non-exempt contests and up to four games—28, 29, 30, and possibly 31—as part of an exempt tournament.

If a team declines exempt event participation, its schedule is limited to 29 games.

Paths To 30 or 31

A wise man who created a sadly-departed college basketball website once said to not focus too much on the championship aspect of early season tournament. Instead, we should view them as the scheduling tools they truly are.

Indeed, over the past 10 years, we have seen exempt events evolve. It's true that vacation destinations continue to dominate the scene, so much so that events like the Maui Invitational, Paradise Jam, and others are what immediately enter the majority of minds upon the first mention of an "exempt tournament." However, round-robins, including ones often not labeled as exempt events on team websites, have grown in importance as teams attempt to get the full scheduling benefit of four games.

So, how do the different early season tournament formats get teams four games?

Traditional Eight-Team Brackets

When you think about the format of an early season tournament, the eight-team bracket of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational is probably the first thing that comes to mind. However, these events have a built-in challenge for organizers, as it's not easy to set up a fourth game out of a three-round elimination tourney. So, they've had to get creative.

Mainland Games

The Maui Jim Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis have set up separate "mainland" brackets. Before the eight marquee teams head to the three-game main event, they each play their fourth game—a home contest against one of four mid-majors. Each member of this quartet, therefore, plays a pair of road games before playing games three and four in the two-round mainland bracket.

There's one exception to this format. Since the Maui Invitational includes Division II Chaminade, one Maui on the Mainland participant, usually the Mainland bracket host, only plays one power conference road game and three in total. I'll discuss this quirk in a bit more detail when I preview the Battle 4 Atlantis and Maui Jim Maui Invitational.

Non-Division I Games

The Great Alaska Shootout and BD Global's Gulf Coast and (forthcoming) Lone Star Showcases allow participants to schedule a fourth game against a non-Division I opponent as part of their participation in their respective event.

Non-Bracketed Games

If the regular season schedule of a team participating in an exempt tournament consists of only 30 games, it's more than likely that they are only playing three games as part of the event. That's because the Paradise Jam and ESPN Events-managed tournaments (like the Gildan Charleston Classic and Advocare Invitational) encourage or require teams to schedule their fourth games against other teams in the bracket.

Even though organizers typically place teams playing in non-bracketed games on opposite sides of the bracket, rematches can and do happen. Just last season, the Oklahoma State Cowboys defeated the Long Beach State 49ers twice in a six-day span, once in the Charleston Classic's third-place game and then in a non-bracketed game in Stillwater. With sloppy bracketing, the odds in favor of a rapid rematch increase—like 2015's Toledo Rockets and Loyola-Chicago Ramblers Great Alaska Shootout semifinal six days after their non-bracketed game at Gentile Arena.

As a result, coaches can be leery of take advantage of this type of fourth game. However, this format is a creative way to set up a home-and-home series (as the Xavier Musketeers and Northern Iowa Panthers did this season) or even a three-game set (like the one the Ole Miss Rebels and Bradley Braves started in 2015).

Updated 08/09/2016: It turns out teams can even schedule and count a fourth game against Division I opposition not involved in a specific event as part of its participation. This season, the Florida Gators' game in Tampa against the Belmont Bruins counts as exempt. Last season, the Michigan State Spartans' home contest against the Eastern Michigan Eagles was considered part of the Directv Wooden Legacy, even though the MAC squad didn't participate in the main bracket in Southern California. More curiously, the Eagles played 13 non-conference games with their other three "Wooden" games coming against non-Division I foes.

Pool/Final Format

The easiest way to get four games for each participant in an eight-team bracket would be to separate the participants into a pair of four-team pools. After playing a three-game round-robin, the teams could be paired off for a fourth game based on the pool standings, with the two first place teams meeting for the championship, and so forth. But considering this would require an extra day or two of competition, the costs for organizers, teams, and fans make this approach impractical.

Split-Bracket Events

This format provides the easiest path to four games and a simultaneous opportunity for participants to experience an early taste of tournament play. The 2K Classic Benefitting Wounded Warrior Project moved to this eight-team format to guarantee each participants four games, though upsets in the tournament's former 16-team bracket, most notably the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs' 2007 win over the Kentucky Wildcats, contributed to the switch. More recently, the NIT Season Tip-Off gave up on having a 16-team field in 2014 after several years of struggling to build one.

In this format, the eight participants are split into two brackets—a top flight usually filled with power conference/marquee teams and lower one filled with mid-majors. Typically, an upper bracket team welcomes a pair of lower bracket ones either before or after the main event, though rarely, a top-flight team will play a road game, as the Tulsa Golden Hurricane did against their crosstown rivals, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, in the 2014 MGM Grand Main Event.

At the tournament site, the participants will usually play a pair of bracketed tournaments. Usually, only the top flight's semifinals and finals receive television coverage, though streaming has allowed organizers to give the lower brackets more exposure. Occasionally, previous scheduling commitments will force tournament officials to scrap the bracket in favor of a showcase format, as was the case of the 2013 Las Vegas Invitational, which featured the Missouri Tigers and UCLA Bruins, who were already set to wrap up a home-and-home series later in the season.

The primary complaint about this format is the fact a power-conference team can lose one or both of its home games, like the Georgetown Hoyas in last season's 2K Classic (Remember the Radford Highlanders?), and still advance to the championship bracket. On the flip side, if you think of these events as scheduling tools, the criticism loses a bit of its punch.

Round-Robin Events

This is the segment of the exempt event world that's experienced the most growth since 2006, in part because these types of events are the easiest to organize. In fact, teams will often fail to advertise that they're taking part in one when publishing their schedules, particularly if there are five participants.

If you suspect a team is participating in some sort of phantom event, count the number of games. If a team is playing 30 or 31 (without including exhibitions and the conference tournament), there's an MTE in there somewhere.

Four-Team Round Robins

The favored exempt event of mid-majors who find it difficult to schedule quality opposition, these events typically feature a quartet of teams playing a trio of doubleheaders over three or four days at a single site. Usually, the venue is on campus, but there are exceptions, like this season's new Sanford Pentagon Showcase, scheduled for that arena in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Much like the eight-team bracket, it's difficult to get four games out of a four-team event. To get an extra contest, teams are usually permitted to schedule a non-Division I game. More rarely, participants might play an additional game against each other as part of a longer scheduling arrangement.

Five-Team Round Robins

While this format makes a single-site event impractical (since it would take five days for each team to play four games), it ensures each participant four Division I games. Typically, a power conference team anchors the event, getting four home contests, while the other participants get one or two. Occasionally, a five-team round robin might surround a home-and-home series scheduled between two of the teams. For example, the Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes met in a pair of Global Sports-sponsored events in 2010 and 2011, with the showcase games taking place in Gainesville and Columbus, respectively.

Neutral site games also occasionally feature in the five-team round-robin format. Up until this season, the Gazelle Group's Gotham Classic featured a showcase game at Madison Square Garden (the Pittsburgh Panthers defeated the Davidson Wildcats in 2015's edition). The second edition of the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational will go further with not only a showcase game at the Barclays Center between the Syracuse Orange and South Carolina Gamecocks, but also a three-team round-robin among the other participants, hosted by the Holy Cross Crusaders.


Division I Manual bylaw requires that all of an event's games take place in a 14-day span. As usual, there are exceptions. This season, the Creighton Bluejays will host the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles in a non-bracketed game for the Paradise Jam on December 17th, long after the event's final on November 21st. For comparison's sake, the Ole Miss Rebels welcome the Montana Grizzlies to Oxford for the pair's fourth game in the event on November 24th.

Location, Location, Location

NCAA members located in Alaska, Hawai'i, and Puerto Rico receive an additional scheduling benefit thanks to Manual bylaw Since the Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors are the one Division I member in these locales, they receive the most benefit, as they can participate in up to three multi-team events per season. The Bows host two—November's round-robin Rainbow Classic and December's Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, which confusinglyreplaced the old eight-team Rainbow Classic. This arrangement serves as an incentive for teams from the continental U.S. to make the trip to the middle of the Pacific.

If UH's athletic department desires, they can count these six games against their 31-game cap and schedule a third event on the mainland, as in 2014, when the Rainbow Warriors traveled to Florida for the Gulf Coast Showcase. More frequently, however, they'll count one of the two tournaments as their exempt participation for the year, and schedule a pair of extra home games for revenue purposes.

Exempt events currently take place in the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawai'i, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Contests in Canada are also permitted under Bylaw BD Global will be the first promoter to take advantage of this allowance, as the Vancouver Showcase is slated to launch in 2017. The Cayman Islands are also likely to be added to the list in the next edition of the Division I Manual, as Global Sports has set a field for the first Cayman Islands Classic, also scheduled for November 2017.

Participation Restrictions

Bylaw spells out limitations on team participation in multi-team events. A tournament should only include one member of a particular conference, though the last round of realignment complicated matters. Most notably, both the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Battle 4 Atlantis featured a pair of Big East participants, with the Georgetown Hoyas and Butler Bulldogs meeting in the third-place game of the latter. In 2017, 16 teams are scheduled to gather in Portland, Ore. for a 16-team mega event honoring Nike founder Phil Knight. That event will be split into two eight-team brackets to separate members from leagues that are supplying two teams.

Individual teams are only allowed to participate in an event once every four years, unless they're a host school from Alaska, Hawai'i, or Puerto Rico. Take the Gildan Charleston Classic for example. Even though it takes place on the home floor of the College of Charleston Cougars, they cannot participate on an annual basis. In 2016, they'll make their third appearance in the event's nine editions, following the inaugural tournament in 2008 and a return in 2012.

Occasionally, a team from the continental U.S. will play in two MTEs in a season, but it can only count one towards its 31-game total. In 2014, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions played in both the Rainbow Classic and Las Vegas Invitational, and ended up playing 32 games. Oops.

Bracketed tournaments are also sponsored by an NCAA member institution or conference (Bylaw The institution, which can be a non-Division I school like Maui Jim Maui Invitational host Chaminade, always participates. The conference, however, doesn't need to enter a team. Most sponsoring conferences, like the Metro Atlantic (Hall of Fame Tip-Off and Advocare Invitational) take advantage of the rule to involve a team each year. Others, like the Northeast (Legends Classic and 2K Classic) only do so occasionally.

I'll be referencing these rules and the exceptions to them throughout this year's preview series, which will include an abbreviated look at the round-robin MTEs for the first time.

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