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College Basketball’s Early Season Events — And Schedules — May Change For 2020-21

Sliding a bit under the radar, the NCAA recently advanced a proposal to simplify tournament scheduling starting with next season. And with 20-game conference schedules becoming the norm, November and December slates might soon look a bit different, with teams getting a bit more flexibility.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Duke at Gonzaga
In 2018, Maui Jim Maui Invitational champ Gonzaga hosted Texas Southern in a Mainland game. The Bulldogs won’t be able to do that in the future, if the NCAA goes through with a proposed scheduling reform.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in the final days of September 2018, I was pointed in the direction of some proposed NCAA legislation that would significantly alter the format of the multi-team events (MTEs) that are fixtures on the majority of Division I men’s college basketball November (and in some cases December) schedules. Nine months later, the NCAA’s Division I Council settled on one of the competing options for reform, advancing it to a vote of the full NCAA membership in either January or April of 2020. If approved then, the new rules would go into effect in time for the 2020-21 season.

Current Scheduling Rules

Under the rules that apply to this season, teams build their schedules in one of two ways:

  1. If a team signs up for an MTE, it can play a schedule of up to 31 games (32 with a trip to Hawai’i)—27 games plus participation in an MTE of up to four contests. In this case, a team schedules between 11 and 17 non-conference matchups depending on the length of its conference schedule. However, the MTE is responsible for three or four of these, reducing the burden on coaching staffs.
  2. If a team skips an MTE, it can play a schedule of up to 29 games (30 with a trip to Hawai’i). If declining to participate in an event, a team schedules nine to 15 non-league games based on its conference slate. But with no MTE to fill three or four of those slots, that’s more work for coaches.

The Proposed Rules

While the NCAA originally examined a trio of scheduling concepts, these were eventually whittled down to two, with the final proposal not quite matching the three original options from last fall. If passed, the new rules will provide teams with three options for building a schedule, with two of these featuring revised options for MTEs. Note that the total number of games permitted, 31 games if participating in an event and 29 if not, will remain in place.

The biggest news here is that MTEs will be limited to three games in the future, not four.

  1. If a team signs up for a three-game MTE, it can play 31 games—28 regularly-scheduled games and the three matchups in the MTE.
  2. If a team signs up for a two-game MTE, it can also play 31 games—29 regularly-scheduled contests and the two games in the event.
  3. If a team skips an MTE, it will again be limited to 29 games.

But the reduction of MTEs isn’t the only significant rule change in the proposal. To me, the most noteworthy is the exclusion of non-Division I teams from participation in Division I tournaments. The only exception: when such a team, like Chaminade, hosts the event. That means teams will no longer be able to tack on a home game against a non-D1 foe to complete their participation in an tournament that otherwise features three games against Division I opponents.

Other notable new requirements include the following:

  • All teams in an event must play the same number of games. There will be no more instances of some teams in a field playing four games and others scheduling just three.
  • More controversially, all teams in an event must also schedule the same number of games overall, either 28 games with a three-game event or 29 games with a two-game event. This could be a major issue for Ivy League teams, which currently schedule fewer than 31 regular-season games even when participating in an event. For example, the Penn Quakers scheduled 30 in each of the last two seasons, despite playing in an MTE in both.

Otherwise, many of the rules currently in place regarding MTEs will largely remain in place, though there are some tweaks regarding scheduling.

  • Only one team from a conference will be able to participate in an event, barring contractual issues related to realignment (for example, the participation two MVC teams, the Illinois State Redbirds and Valparaiso Crusaders, in this season’s Paradise Jam).
  • Teams can only participate in a particular event (Maui, Atlantis, NIT Season Tip-Off, etc.) once every four seasons.
  • The current timing rule for completing an event—14 days for a maximum of four games—is adjusted to reflect the reduction in contests. Three-game events must be completed within 10 days; two-game events within five.

What Will These Changes Mean, Practically?

To me, some of the potential consequences of this rule change should be automatic:

  • Eight-team, three-round bracketed tournaments like the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, Battle 4 Atlantis, and Cayman Islands Classic, will likely drop their “mainland” brackets. Entrants will play all of their games at the tournament site, and they will no longer play home games as part of their participation.
  • Similarly, tournaments using a “non-bracketed game” model (for example, most of ESPN’s events, the Paradise Jam, the Gulf Coast Showcase) will revert to eight-team, three-round events without these tacked on contests. Typically, non-bracketed games feature two teams in the tournament field playing on-campus before or after an event, opening up the possibility of rematches.
  • Five-team round-robin events should drop down to four-team ones, whether a neutral-site component is included (Barclays Center Classic) or not.

But another consequence is more up in the air—what happens to events that currently offer two on-campus games and a pair of neutral-site games, like the 2K Empire Classic, Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Cancun Challenge, and Fox Sports’ Las Vegas Invitational and Classic? These could revert to two-game events, with two-round tournaments at a neutral site. However, I suspect they keep their current split bracket formats, with the mid-major “visiting” teams only playing a single road game against a higher-profile “host” team before moving to bracketed play—not the two road contests they would currently play.

Most importantly, coaches will receive a little more scheduling flexibility from 2020-21 onward. With future MTEs featuring just two or three games, instead of four, coaches will have the opportunity to schedule an extra non-conference contest or two. And with many conferences going to 20-game league schedules, such chances will be increasingly important for many teams.

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