The College Basketball Champions League

In many ways the NCAA is much more analogous to the European sports landscape than here in America: A group of leagues bound by a greater authority that ultimately governs them all.

Yet the NCAA fails to take advantage of this fact. One way they could? A College Basketball Champions League.

This is not a new idea. Andy Glockner wrote about it in SI in 2013 and even back then he was crediting John Infante with the genesis of the idea. But it’s one that just might be too good to pass up. The College Basketball Champions League would introduce some quirks into the schedule, but it would also provide college basketball with a marquee non-conference event that would draw interest from the offseason, to the start of the season in November, through its conclusion (hopefully in late December).

What is the College Basketball Champions League?

It’s a 48-team tournament with the “best” teams from the prior season. We’re going to be all-inclusive here, so “best” in this case means the regular season champion of all 32 college basketball conferences along with 16 at-large teams. (I selected the top teams in KenPom as my at-larges, but there are a myriad of ways college basketball could ultimately conclude it wanted to hand out those bids.)

The tournament then plays out much like its European counterpart. The first two rounds would be “play-in games” for the bottom 24 teams in the tournament. (Mainly mid-major conference champions.) Through two rounds of home-and-home competition those 24 teams would be whittled down to eight that would join the other 24 teams in an 8-pod group stage.

The group stage would be one of two marquee events in the CBCL. Each four-team group would play a home-and-home round robin that would determine the group winner. (We would need to figure out a tiebreaker. I used overall point differential if teams split during the round robin, but I could see how the NCAA might be wary of it.) The eight champions would then go on to play a 3-day exempt multi-team event to determine the CBCL champion.

Can I see an example?

Using the 2015-16 KenPom ratings and the WhatIfSports simulation tool I simulated the 2016-17 College Basketball Champions League. You can see how the entire thing played out in this spreadsheet. Ultimately Villanova, North Carolina, Baylor, Oregon, SMU, West Virginia, Kansas and Kentucky qualified for the final weekend tournament, with Villanova taking home the prize.

If you take a look at the games tab you can see there were some upsets along the way. New Mexico St., Belmont and Akron all advanced from the initial play-in round to the group stage. UNCW advanced from the play-in round all the way to the final weekend in another simulation I did of the 2016-17 champions, winning a group that included Kansas, Wisconsin and Saint Mary’s.

And there-in lies at least one of the problems.

What are some of the issues with this tournament?

Major conference teams would have to play at mid-majors. It’s almost guaranteed because of how the pods are set up that at least one spot in each group in the CBCL is going to be a mid-major. That means that a school like Stephen F. Austin would get the opportunity to host SMU, Michigan State and Arizona in Nagadoches, TX. I can’t imagine that would make the Mustangs, Spartans or Wildcats too happy. For years major conference teams have worked extremely hard to make it so that the vast majority of non-conference games are played on terms favorable to them. This format would make it so at least once a year they had to go play somewhere quite different than their normal confines. I think that’s great. But I don’t think Tom Izzo or Sean Miller would agree. Geographic concerns could at least be handled during the group selection process. When I did my simulation I made it mostly random, except during the play-in section I tried to account for some mid-major travel—for instance matching up New Mexico St. and Hawaii in round two—but Stony Brook and San Diego St. still ended up traveling across the country.

The format would have to reward the prior season instead of the current one. The CBCL would be some of the first sanctioned season-to-season carryover effects the NCAA has experienced. Graduation and roster upheaval would mean that sometimes a non-competitive team would earn a spot into the tournament. Also, some of the best teams of the new season would get left out. For instance the 2016-17 event would not have included Florida, Saint Mary’s, UCLA, or Michigan. The 2015-16 event would have left out seven teams in the final Top 25 of the KenPom ratings.

There would be an uneven distribution among the top conferences. No matter how you determined the at-large bids (which would be another sticking point) there would always be some unequal distribution among the power conferences. For instance, as you can see in the table below of multi-bid conferences, the Big 12 would have earned more than double the number of slots that Pac-12 and SEC earned during the past three seasons:

Conference 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 Total
Big 12 5 5 5 15
ACC 5 5 4 14
Big Ten 4 5 3 12
Big East 4 2 2 8
Pac-12 2 2 3 7
SEC 1 2 3 6
American 1 2 2 5
Missouri Valley 2 1 1 4

That unequal distribution would definitely cause some angst among power conferences.

It locks up the non-conference schedules and could create some headaches for mid-majors. A mid-major that played in the first play-in stage and made a Cinderella run to the finals of the CBCL would end up playing its entire 13-game non-conference schedule in the tournament. But there would be no way to know that was going to happen until playing through the games. There would need to be some sort of pool to protect mid-majors (which Glockner described in his post) to guarantee them decent games if they were eliminated earlier in the process. The group stage would include six non-conference games, which would have to be scheduled in a relatively tight window. But thankfully most of those could be put on the calendar well in advance for the three teams that were automatically advancing to that stage. Still, multi-year scheduling contracts would need to include clauses for potentially playing in the CBCL so that teams would have flexibility to carve out that chunk of their schedule if the qualified.

There would be some marquee match ups prior to the NCAA tournament. This is really not that big of a negative. If “creating too many good games” is one of your biggest problems then the idea is probably a great one. The final weekend would have the potential to be as or more exciting than the final rounds in March and April. There might be a Cinderella, but in most seasons it would be the top teams in the country, that had proven their mettle through difficult group stage games battling it out for a trophy. Teams change a bunch (injury, scheme, etc.) during conference play, so it wouldn’t mean that we’d necessarily see the same championship game twice. (For instance the 2016-17 simulation I did saw Villanova play North Carolina in the title game.)

And here are some other reasons the CBCL would be a great idea…

Why is this an awesome idea?

This event is television gold. Live sports is the best product on television and Fox Sports and ESPN are always looking for more inventory. The CBCL would provide 140 high-stakes non-conference games and an offseason random draw event. The final weekend tournament would guarantee seven awesome championship bracket games worthy of the main affiliate of a network—though potentially during the heart of college football’s bowl season. The mid-major play-in stages would be great content for ESPNU, which is basically the reason it exists, or exclusive ESPN3 packages (if they really want to jump on the streaming bandwagon). There’s a lot of inventory here that the NCAA could seize control of and then break up as it saw fit.

It would draw fans into the college basketball season immediately. If fans saw during the draw in early October that Baylor, Louisville and Wichita State were going to be playing a round-robin along with another team (likely Dayton), that would probably spark some interest in the beginning of the non-conference schedule. Right now there just aren’t many marquee non-conference games beyond the Champions Classic and a few of the best holiday tournaments. The CBCL creates those marquee, must-see games with some actual consequences. Also, America loves brackets. And the CBCL would lend itself to a bracket before January. The debates could start as soon as the NCAA announced the groups. Pick the winners of the eight pods. Pick the winners of the final weekend tournament. It’d be the Silver Sword times 100.

It gives an extra reward (and potentially incentive) for mid-major champions. Low-majors especially are struggling to hang onto some of their top talent. (Just look at the NEC.) But what if Jamion Christian could’ve offered the opportunity to play in the CBCL and potentially advance to a group stage where maybe Arizona or Duke or Kentucky would come play in Emmitsburg, Md.? Would that have convinced a few more players to stay? Maybe. Or if not, it could serve as an excellent recruiting tool. Mid-majors that consistently compete for regular-season titles would be a go-to destination, because there would be more on the line than securing an automatic postseason berth to the NIT.

It would help the NCAA Tournament with seeding. The more quality non-conference games played in the first three months of the season the better. They help the Selection Committee understand the strengths and weaknesses of the teams around them. The CBCL would give elite mid-majors (Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Wichita State from this past season for instance) a guaranteed chance to prove themselves against the best of the best. For instance, all three of those teams would be preparing for group play as protected seeds as soon as the regular season finished. It wouldn’t diminish the NCAA Tournament one bit, but it would provide that extra incentive.

Sure. The College Basketball Champions League has a lot of things it would need to work out. For one, all of the pros and cons that I’ve laid out means that this tournament would need to be explicitly run by the NCAA. I don’t know if the powers that be in Indianapolis want to take on such a task. Television contracts with league partners could also be a potential stumbling block. But boy would it be fun.

Want to see how much fun? Check out the details of the 2016-17 season CBCL, which I’ve embedded below.