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Now is the time for a college basketball Champions League

Capture.pngDoing my hourly scroll through Twitter on Thursday morning, I came across Jeff Goodman’s Tweet complaining about that night’s college basketball slate.

I see this sentiment quite often, and I wholeheartedly agree. It sucks that there’s 50 games on Tuesday and by Thursday, KenPom’s top game is Seattle vs. Washington St., a battle of two sub 130 teams that doesn’t even start until 9pm ET.

But where I differ with Jeff’s assessment is that the issue isn’t just opening week. Sure, the Gavitt Games, and Big 10/ACC Tournaments spice things up until the Holiday Tournaments roll around, but even then, there’s only 1 or 2 high profile match-ups a week, if that. If you want people to pay attention to college ball early, and don’t have a Zion in your ranks, you have to put up more quality, meaningful games right from the jump.

And that’s where I, for the 300th time, lament that the idea for a CBB Champions League (CBBCL) hasn’t received any traction. For those unfamiliar, #KnownMarquetteHater and TBW supporter Andy Glockner spelled it out in detail for Sports Illustrated in 2013, and if you want to understand the basis for this post, I highly recommend reading his article (again, if you’ve already done so).

Basically, much like in European soccer, where the best teams from the best leagues play a separate tournament during the season on top of their own domestic league, this would take the best of college basketball and create a 48-team tournament that would run in November and December, creating tremendous television matchups and crowning an in-season champion of champions.

It wouldn’t diminish the NCAA tournament, in my opinion, as teams change a lot in those 6-8 weeks. That would still be recognized as the national championship. This would just be spun as an elite in-season tournament for conference champs and other strong programs.

Plus, this would give the opportunity to smaller schools to get a couple of really good homes games out of conference. It would also give second-level major-programs home shots at the best in the business. Imagine the crowd atmospheres as Duke goes to VCU or Kansas has to play at Wichita State?

The way Glockner envisioned it, you would use the previous season’s results to determine eligibility with the best leagues getting multiple bids, and every regular season champion from 2019 also getting an invite. Unlike his vision, I would assign the multi-bids based on previous year Ken Pom conference strength, so it would look something like this for 2020.

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4 Bids: Big 12, Big Ten
3 Bids: ACC, SEC, Big East, AAC
2 Bids: Pac-12, West Coast Conference
1 Bid: Everyone else

The bids for each conference would go based on regular season conference records, with tiebreaks going to the higher seeds in the conference tournament. So Seton Hall, for example, was the 3 seed in the Big East Tournament in 2019, even though it was tied for 3rd in the league, and as such would receive the nomination to participate.

Yes, that will create some instances where senior-laden teams that finished highly one season and project to be much weaker for the CBBCL, but that is still a reward for actual results, and would be fairer than going simply by who is projected to be good.

And here are the teams that would have received an invite this season, had it been implemented.

MULTI BIDS

B12 Tex Tech Kstate KU Baylor
B10 MSU Purdue Mich Wisco
ACC UVA UNC Duke
SEC LSU UK Auburn
BEast Nova MU Hall
AAC Houston Cincy UCF
P12 UW ASU
WCC Zags St. Mary

SINGLE BIDS

MAC Buffalo WAC NM St. OVC Belmont
MW Nevada Horizon NKU AEast Vermont
A10 VCU Big South Campbell BSky Montana
Ivy Yale ASun Lipscomb MAAC Iona
Southern Wofford Patriot Colgate Southla Sam Hous
Sun Belt Ga. St. CAA Hofstra Northeas StFran PA
MVC Loyola Summit SD St. SWAC P View
CUSA ODU Big West UC Irvine MEAC Norfolk

Getting back to the format, the selected teams would then be seeded 1-48 based on preseason projections. Personally, I’m a big fan of composites, particularly before any data comes in and the resume/power rank differences in rating systems comes into play. So I would propose using Massey’s composite rankings to seed the teams.

The top 24 teams based on rank would receive direct placement in the group stage. The bottom 24 teams would have to play their way into the tournament. Seeing as the average Massey Composite rank for the top 24 is 18.5, while the average for the bottom 24 is 132.5, I think it’s fair (and also mirrors the current set up of UEFA’s Champion’s League.)

Seeds 33-48 would play each other in the opening play-in game, with the higher seed getting home court advantage. The winner of that game would proceed to play seeds 25-32 two days later, and again, the higher seeds would get home court advantage. (I also threw around the possibility of hosting the games on a neutral floor, but as these were mostly smaller schools and fanbases, it would make more sense to reward the better teams and create more visually appealing atmospheres.)

That would create a 2 day schedule that could look something like this (assuming the home team won each game), with games tipping off every 30 minutes to ensure there would be high stakes crunch time going on from 8 PM to Midnight.

Fixture Date Time Home vs Away TV
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 10:00 PM UC Irvine vs Norfolk ESPN2
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 8:30 PM Loyola vs P View ESPNU
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 9:00 PM NKU vs Campbell FS1
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 8:00 PM Yale vs St. Fran (PA) ESPN2
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 10:30 PM ODU vs Sam Hous ESPNU
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 7:00 PM Colgate vs Montana FS1
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 6:30 PM Hofstra vs Iona ESPNU
Play-In 1 11/5/2019 6:00 PM Lipscomb vs Ga. St. ESPN2
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 10:00 PM ASU vs Lipscomb ESPN2
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 8:00 PM Belmont vs Hofstra ESPN2
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 9:00 PM Buffalo vs Colgate FS1
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 6:30 PM UCF vs ODU ESPNU
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 8:30 PM Nevada vs Yale ESPNU
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 7:00 PM Vermont vs NKU FS1
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 6:00 PM Wofford vs Loyola ESPN2
Play-In 2 11/7/2019 10:30 PM SD St. vs UC Irvine ESPNU

It’s not the sexiest slate in the world, but much like during conference tournaments, the win or go home stakes give the audience a much bigger incentive to watch.

And assuming the higher seeds win out once more, that would leave us with the following groups.

2019 CBBCL Groups
Seed A B C D E F G H
1 MSU Duke UK UVA UNC Zags KU Tex Tech
2 St. Mary Auburn Wisco LSU Baylor Mich Purdue Nova
3 NM St. Wash KState Cincy VCU MU Hall Houston
4 SD St. Wofford Vermont Nevada UCF Buffalo Belmont ASU

For a bit of fairness, I assigned MSU, which was the overall 1 seed, the weakest 2, 3, and 4 seeds (St. Mary’s, NM State and SD State) and Texas Tech the strongest 2, 3 and 4 seeds, but if you wanted to, all non-Group heads could be assigned at random during a televised drawing. I also had to move two teams to make sure there were no intra-conference matchups.

From here, each team would play the other 3 teams in their group twice, once home and once away, playing 1 game each week through December. For TV purposes, I would only play games Tuesday-Friday early on, so as not to compete with Monday Night Football, college football Saturdays, or NFL Sundays.

If possible, I would also keep teams from each group playing on the same day and then group 2 groups together for a fixture day, with all of Group A and all of Group B playing the same night, C with D, E with F and G with H. Doing so would guarantee you have at least two top-10 KenPom teams playing every night.

Once the group stages were done, you’d host a weekend, single elimination tournament with the 8 winners of each group getting to advance. You could host it in December, clearing up the new year exclusively for league play, or you could time it to fall the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the CFB Championship game on Monday, when there are no other bowl games televised. (Though I can see not wanting to face off against a full slate of NFL playoff games, so that can be altered as well.)

As I was building out the schedule, I also started thinking that since these teams, usually the biggest in the sport, would no longer be able to play in exempt Holiday Tournaments, it would greatly diminish the power of that branding, and possibly kill off a number of the tournaments. To recoup some of that revenue for TV networks, you could theoretically sell off the sponsorship to each group. So it wouldn’t just be Group A, it would be Group A presented by Vizio.

And after all, this is what it’s all about, money. The single biggest obstacle I see would be the licensing for the ability to broadcast games, as ESPN pays top dollar to be able to broadcast the Dukes and UNCs of the world exclusively. But FOX still controls rights packages for the Big East, and parts of the Big Ten and Pac 12, and wouldn’t give those up quite so easily.

Instead of divvying up the broadcast rights along current lines, I could see a joint venture, much like Turner and CBS, but have it be with ESPN and FOX.

The current value of the NCAA Tournament is $1.1 billion a year for 67 games, coming out to about $16,418,000 per game. Obviously the play-in games don’t come close to being worth that much, and the Final Four is worth many times that, but all in all, that’s a decent barometer of what the highest stakes games cost.

This tournament would provide 80 group stage games, 16 play-in games, and culminate with group winners playing in a single elimination 8-team tournament, for an additional 7 games. Do it at MSG or a predetermined, historical location, and you’d guarantee to have ticket prices soaring, adding a separate narrative of desirability and importance.

Those 103 meaningful games could be split on something like a 65/35 basis between ESPN and FOX, with the money going directly to the leagues and then divided up according to each conference’s mechanism, much like for the current NCAA credits process. I have no idea what kind of revenue that would draw, but I do think a weekend tournament that potentially had Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina playing multiple times would be quite valuable.

And to bring it back to the original point, it would give the sport some much needed importance before March. The average fan can’t keep track of the 25 different Holiday Tournaments, even as condensed as they are. If you marketed the CBBCL as one condensed tournament, it would brighten up the schedule on a nightly basis where it currently sits 4th or 5th in the pecking order.

I know it will make scheduling very difficult, particularly for teams like Marquette that don’t have first dibs in their home arenas and are subsequently at the mercy of the Bucks or  Jurrasic World Live, which has this entire weekend booked solid. I also know it will be a pain to have uncertainty in the conference league schedules, as you can’t necessarily block off an entire weekend for all the teams participating, and would require some leniency about rescheduling.

Without the top 3 or 4 ACC and Big Ten teams each year, the BIG/ACC challenge loses most of its muster, and while it, and other challenges, could still survive, wouldn’t be the gems they currently are.

Finally, it will completely alter the way these teams schedule the Non-Con. If you are guaranteed 3 home and away dates, with at least 2 possibly 3 being against top 50 teams, you probably won’t see many of these teams scheduling home and home any more.

Take Marquette, for example. If 6 of the 12 games on its schedule this season were guaranteed to be against Gonzaga, Michigan and Buffalo, you probably don’t see the return trip to Kansas State. You don’t have room for an exempt tourney and definitely don’t want a Gavitt game. Now take into account two additional Big East games starting next season, and you probably would only have room for one game against Wisconsin and maybe 2 cupcakes. That’s it.

That is a sport-altering change to the schedule and potential NCAA prospects. But that’s the whole point. You want the best teams to face off as early and as often as possible for games to matter and people to pay attention.

If you have these predetermined teams facing off against each other, it will force those not invited really step up their scheduling as well, and pit the quality remains of each conference against each other. (Or you could add in a Europa League of sorts with the next best 48 teams, but I’ll leave that for someone else to map out.)

All of this is to say, college basketball is a great product that seems to have little public attention until March. It doesn’t have to be this way. And in my opinion, the best way to change that is the CBBCL.

I’ve created a mockup of the group stage schedule as it would look this year.

A PDF as can be downloaded at the link below as well.

2019 CBBCL Schedule

It’s time this sport demands better.

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