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Might Some (Needed) Changes Be On The Way For Early Season Tournaments?

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The relatively recent and rapid growth in the number of multi-team events, particularly on-campus ones, has meant some organizers struggled mightily to fill their fields this season. But the whole market could soon change thanks to some proposed reforms.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-SMU vs Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky’s Battle 4 Atlantis wins over Purdue and SMU made the Hilltoppers an at-large threat for a portion of last season. But some potential early season tournament changes could make it harder for WKU and other mid-majors to pick up vital non-conference wins in future seasons.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Given that we’re now deep into football season and still a few weeks away from tip-off, you probably missed a press release last Wednesday (September 19th) from East Tennessee State‘s athletic department. It mentioned that in 2019 the Buccaneers would be joining a new mid-major non-conference scheduling consortium called The Alliance—spearheaded by former coach and current analyst Mark Adams. The goal of this new grouping is to give high-quality mid-major programs more opportunities to schedule appropriate non-conference matchups, both home and on the road, eventually branching out into multiple-team events (MTEs) starting in 2020. But the lede of this release isn’t what drew my attention. About midway down, the following comments from ETSU coach Steve Forbes jumped out at me (emphasis mine).

Forbes said changes to scheduling philosophy around the country – such as power conferences adding more league games and proposed alterations to the current multiple-team event (MTE) format – have made it imperative for mid-major programs to take action.

“Several leagues across the country are adding two more conference games to their schedules and the current MTE model may soon be changing,” Forbes added. “The addition of more conference games will reduce the total number of non-conference games available to schedule, and the impending MTE changes could possibly end our ability to play two home games by hosting the mainland portion of an MTE as we are this year with the Cayman Island Classic.

This was curious to me, as I hadn’t heard anything about potential changes to the MTE rules (which I’ve written about in-depth previously). More troublingly, Google searches didn’t really provide anything in terms of real, concrete news on the subject. However, searching for “NCAA MTE proposals” returned an NCAA PowerPoint presentation on various college basketball topics. For the purposes of this piece, the relevant information begins on slide 48.

Current MTE Issues (And There Are Plenty!)

The reforms in this presentation seem quite timely. I first started tracking early season tournaments for the 2012-13 season and none of the previous six seasons have been quite as tricky in terms of matching teams to events as this one.

  • Events like the inaugural Vancouver Showcase and longstanding Las Vegas Invitational struggled to put together complete visitors’ brackets. So did the NIT Season Tip-Off, which was a 16-team tournament just five years ago. In 2018, NIT Tip-Off-owner ESPN Events had to rope in the Gulf Coast Showcase to serve as a quasi-visitors’ bracket, even though the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns are the only team out of eight playing in Fort Myers that has an NIT campus-site game on its schedule. At the other end of the continent, the Vancouver event recently announced its reformatting from a bracketed tournament to a quasi-round-robin.
  • Over recent seasons, a few eight-team bracketed MTEs, like the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, have set-up “mainland” brackets. Ideally, these house four mid-major teams who will play a pair of road games each against main bracket squads. Then, the quartet of visitors would later gather for a bracketed event in one of the participants’ home arenas. This guarantees both the main bracket teams and visiting squads the full four games allowed under the current exempt tournament rules. Unfortunately, of the three events that take this approach to scheduling, only the Cayman Islands Classic was able to get a full set of four visiting teams (with ETSU hosting, as noted in their press release).
  • Due to these difficulties, the NCAA allowed several teams to schedule so-called “waiver games” to get the full complement of non-conference games, on their slates including Arizona, Auburn, Duke (all three heading to Maui, with the Tigers scheduling a non-D1 opponent), Butler, and Wisconsin (both Battle 4 Atlantis).

This extended to other eight-team bracketed events where teams are responsible for setting up their own non-bracketed contests. For example, Northwestern (Wooden Legacy) and Western Kentucky (Myrtle Beach Invitational) are both playing the maximum number of non-conference games allowed despite not having an official non-bracketed game listed for their respective tournaments (11 for the Wildcats with the Big Ten playing 20 league games and 13 for the Hilltoppers with 18 C-USA games). Meanwhile, defending National Champion Villanova is playing Furman as its fourth Advocare Invitational game, with the Paladins playing a pair of home games against non-D1 opponents as their participation in the event (since they’re not traveling to Florida for the official bracket).

  • In a handful of five- and six-team MTEs, most notably the Kentucky-anchored Ohio Valley Hardwood Showcase and Rutgers’ Hub City Classic, only the power conference anchor team will play four Division I opponents as part of their participation. Sure, the mid-majors involved are guaranteed a couple of home games as a result, but these are likely to involve non-D1 opposition.
  • The number of round-robin MTEs featuring three or four Division I teams doubled over the past year—jumping from seven a season ago to 14 in 2018—with two of these scheduled for a neutral-site in the Bahamas. None of these events feature a team from the FBS Power 5, Big East, or American Athletic conferences.

This last bullet is likely to be the one that’s caused the struggles noted in the first three.

By my count, just 29 of the 353 teams playing a Division I schedule this coming season (Welcome, Cal Baptist and North Alabama!) will participate in some sort of MTE. So, they’re clearly a very popular tool for non-conference scheduling. However, with a few teams typically deciding to skip an event each season, and the Ivy League’s continued application of the “two-in-four” participation rule that the rest of Division I abandoned more than a decade ago, we’ve pretty much hit “peak MTE.” It feels like the bubble is about to burst. And things could get even more interesting next season, with a new eight-team bracketed tournament, the Gazelle Group’s Sunshine Slam, in the works for November 2019.

A Trio Of Reform Proposals

And this brings us back to that NCAA PowerPoint. After a few slides describing the benefits of MTEs to Division I college basketball and recent legislation affecting them (like the recent decision to eliminate all restrictions on where MTEs can be held), slide 53 presents a trio of scheduling formats that are being examined by the powers that be during this season for potential action during the NCAA’s 2019-20 legislative year.

Under current rules, remember that a team can play either:

  • 27 games plus participation in an MTE of up to four games, meaning a maximum schedule of 31 games. (This total jumps to 32 if a team schedules a game in Hawai’i.)

or

  • A maximum of 29 games if it forgoes an MTE. (30 with a trip to Hawai’i.)

These totals won’t change under the three proposed concepts, described below.

Concept 1

  • A maximum of 31 games—28 regularly-scheduled games and participation in an MTE, which is limited under this proposal to only three games, not the current four.

or

  • A maximum of 29 games if a team declines an MTE.

This would seem to encourage more eight-team, three-round bracketed tournaments and four-team, single-site, round-robin events, which are already increasingly popular among mid-majors. As indicated on slide 54, this proposal would replace the fourth MTE contest with a game a team could schedule on its own, which would eliminate the majority of confusion surrounding early season events as they’re currently organized.

Concept 2

Let’s call this nearly-full deregulation. Every team would be able to schedule 31 games, period, MTE or no MTE. However, any event participation would still need to abide by NCAA rules. That is, a team would only be able to participate in a single MTE once every four seasons and conferences can only provide a single team to an individual event.

Concept 3

  • A maximum of 31 games—either 27 regularly-scheduled games and a four-game MTE or 28 games and a three-game MTE.

or

  • A maximum of 29 games if a team skips an MTE.

The latter two proposals would likely ensure the current mix of MTE formats remains in place. However, if teams can schedule 31 games with or without MTE participation, I could definitely see power conference teams that don’t get themselves into bracketed tournaments scheduling four home games instead, which would reduce opportunities for mid-majors to pick up wins at neutral-sites.

Selfishly, concepts 2 and 3 probably won’t make things easier for those of us foolish enough to track these things.

Other Possible Changes

But these proposals aren’t the only things that the NCAA will examine, as listed on slides 57 through 59. As you can see, a certification process, like one the NCAA employs for football bowl games, is a definite possibility.

  • With inconsistent scheduling within MTEs an issue, particularly for on-campus events, the NCAA could force all teams in an event to play the same number of games and for all events to follow a standard format (bracketed or round-robin). It could also force organizers to completely take over the scheduling of their events. Currently, many promoters allow teams to schedule games, particularly the controversial fourth MTE contest.

An additional reform I would suggest would apply to five- or six-team round-robin events only. It would force each Division I team involved in one of these events to play a home game against a Division I opponent. This season, I’ve been able to piece together a full schedule for nine of these events so far, and just one, the Gotham Classic, does this. While four other MTEs feature five Division I teams playing a quartet of D1 games each, the lowest-ranked team in each of these events, usually from the MEAC or SWAC, must play all four of their games away from home. Yes, there’s undoubtedly a “buy game” factor involved here, but it would be good for the sport to have these teams play a rare non-conference home game against Division I opposition.

  • The inclusion of non-D1 teams, particularly as a way to get more participants home games, also looks likely to be reviewed.
  • If the fourth MTE game isn’t eliminated, it might still be reformed, since it confuses fans, administrators, and journalists more often than not. Most frequently, this is because the fourth game isn’t scheduled or advertised like other games in an event.

Now, I’d go a step further here and require more transparency around all MTE games. Frequently, five- or six-team on-campus MTEs are not referenced at all on team schedule pages or press releases. For example, take a look at Saint Louis’s schedule page, which doesn’t reference the Billikens’ three Barclays Center Classic home games, and Vanderbilt‘s slate, which doesn’t call out its four MTE games against Alcorn State, Liberty, Kent State, and Savannah State at all.

  • Finally, both the “one team per conference” and “once every four years” rule will be examined. If the former is changed, you could see more events like last season’s Phil Knight Invitational, with a pair of brackets allowing two teams from a conference to play in a single event, though they wouldn’t actually meet at any point. As for the “once in four years” rule, it’s not unknown for a pair of teams to set up series around a pair of MTEs held in consecutive seasons. Working with Global Sports Management, Florida and Ohio State did this with their home-and-home series in November of 2010 and 2011. And the Gators did it again with Middle Tennessee over the next two seasons—playing in Tampa in 2012 and in Gainesville in 2013. In all of these cases, the three other teams involved changed from year-to-year, and the NCAA would likely keep this particular requirement based on the information in the presentation. In other words, you couldn’t have an MTE field with the same five teams for two seasons in a row.

In conclusion, the early season tournament business could see some major changes in the coming seasons, or the NCAA could stick with the status quo. And with power conferences increasingly moving to 20-game league schedules, mid-major teams will be particularly interested in seeing how this process plays out.

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