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Verlin: Expanding the NCAA tournament? Just let everyone in

09/09/2020, 1:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Jay Wright (above) guided Villanova to two NCAA tournament wins in a 64-team bracket: could he do it with over 800? (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

When the news came out earlier today that the coaches of the ACC had unanimously voted to propose an all-inclusive NCAA Division I tournament for this pandemic season, it seemed like most of the initial reaction was negative. How would such a tournament work? How long would it take? How would seeding work?

I had the opposite reaction: why not make it bigger? Bring in Division II and Division III teams –– I’d include other college organizations as well, like the NJCAA, NAIA, and others, but I don’t think the NCAA would let that happen. We’re going to try to keep this insane fantasy tournament idea at least somewhat feasible, and do so in a way that could also work with just the 350-or-so Division I programs.

It also doesn’t mean making Villanova play Rosemont in the opening round of a mega-bracket, as much as Ravens head coach Barney Hughes would relish the opportunity to playfully mock Jay Wright on Twitter again. There’s a way to get some competitive advantage and not have the higher-level programs wear themselves out too early, not to mention waste time with what would surely be a series of massive blowouts. (Maybe a good time for the Elam Ending to enter the college game, but that’s another story).

Instead, let’s look abroad for a little bit of inspiration.

Every year, more than 700 soccer club teams around England all enter into the same tournament: the Football Association Cup. It takes the most prestigious Premier League clubs in the country, such as Manchester City and Liverpool, and puts them in a situation to potentially have to face off against Level 10 clubs with names like Skelmersdale United and Hackney Wick. That hardly ever happens, but the opportunity is still there.

There’s a similar version in the United States known as the U.S. Open Cup, contested last year by 100 different clubs from levels of professional, semi-professional, and amateur soccer. But that pales in comparison to the size of the all-NCAA bracket, which would include all those Division I programs, plus more than 200 from Division II and over 400 from Division III. We need to think bigger.

To get to an eventual champion, the FA Cup first puts its lowest-level teams into the preliminary and qualifying rounds, which cut the field down from 736 to 124 entering the main draw. The opening preliminary round alone includes 368 clubs, whose winners move onto the main preliminary round, where another 136 clubs get their first shot.

Eventually, 32 teams from the lowest rungs of English soccer emerge from four more rounds of qualifying and enter the main draw, to face teams from the third and fourth-highest levels of the pyramid. And while the competition is getting tougher and tougher, it’s not impossible for tiny teams to move on: in 2019, two Level 8 clubs advanced into the second round.

It’s not until the third round of the main draw, the final 64 remaining, that the 44 clubs from the highest two levels of English soccer begin play. At that point the FA cup advances like a regular bracket, six rounds to declare a champion.

So imagine that format brought to the NCAA. The opening round or two would be all teams from the NCAA Division III and perhaps junior colleges, using records from a year ago to determine who has to play in the earliest rounds. The opening round would be all teams that had sub-.500 records from a year ago, playing regional opponents, so seeding wouldn’t be too important.

By the second and third round, bottom-level Division II and some better Division III teams enter the fray, perhaps as site hosts. Ranked Division III and solid D-II programs enter next, followed by low-level Division I programs, and then finally we get the remainder of the teams involved.

The top 32 teams, picked by a committee, play hosts to eight-team pods, which puts us at the top 256 teams remaining in the bracket. At this point it would likely be mostly D-I programs, but there would almost certainly be a handful of D-IIs and maybe even a D-III or two hanging around.

Is it a perfect tournament? No, the earliest rounds would all be done regionally, and so there are sure to be a few mismatches, or teams meeting perhaps a round earlier than they “should” if all things were fair and equal. It would also take a couple months to complete, and I’ll be honest when I say I haven’t put a ton of thought into how those games would be scheduled: around conference games? The FA cup schedules its matches on dates where its leagues don’t play, but that’s a much more difficult dance in the NCAA.

On the flip side, this isn’t a normal year of college basketball. It’s unclear if there will be non-league games, it’s unclear if conference schedules will proceed as normal, as badly as the coaches and players want them to. And this tournament should produce plenty of competitive games, even in the earliest rounds, with every team relishing its shot to play in The Biggest Dance.

On top of that, it would give some lower-level teams national exposure, and there are certainly programs in Division II and Division III that hoop heads around the country would really enjoy seeing in high definition with a professional announcing crew.

There’s certainly a lot more to this that I’m not thinking about when it comes to actually running such a tournament. I’m sure the television rights would in all reality be a nightmare, and don’t even get me started on figuring out how many COVID tests the NCAA would need to pull it off, not to mention what would happen if anybody tests positive. For all these reasons (and many others), there’s pretty much no way an all-inclusive NCAA tournament has any shot of becoming a reality.

I’m just saying it could be a lot of fun if it did.

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