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Kansas Basketball 50 in 50, No. 26: Radically Re-Imagining College Basketball

50 in 50 is a feature here at RCT counting down until the Jayhawks kick off the 2011 basketball season on November first. Got an idea for something you'd like to see featured here? tweet @rockchalktalk or @fetch9 or email me at fetch9 at gmail dot com.

It seems like every time a sport is in its playoff stretch, the question of how to most fairly decide a champion is asked. For an increasing number of sports fans, the answer to that question is the European soccer model. For the uninitiated, I'll use the English Premier League as an example: There are 20 teams in the league, and each team plays every other team in the league home and away. At the end of the year, whoever has the most points (3 for a win, 1 for a tie) wins the league. That's it. No small sample sized influenced playoff, no fluky night ruining your title chances. The best team over the course of the year wins. To supplement that with playoff style excitement, there are various cup competitions scheduled that are interspersed around the league schedule. And of course, the specter of relegation ensures that each and every game means something for every team

I have long wanted similar systems in place for sports leagues over here, but after reading some tweets from The Bylaw Blog and SI's Andy Glockner made me think that college basketball is the perfect vehicle to implement this system (also I really wish I had written this post a year ago), and make the best sport around (maybe second best after hockey. We'll see. Talk to me after Winnipeg's fist game) even better.

The Leagues

We obviously don't have the benefit of every country having its own league/set of leagues like European soccer does. And we can't just keep leagues how they are, because they need somewhere to go in promotion/relegation terms. So we'll have to improvise. One idea is to start by having the best 20 teams (whether it be by taking average annual KenPom, or RPI or NCAA Tournament finish over the past 5 years) and have them be a league. The next best 20 a league, and so on until all of the teams are divvied out. One main problem, as I'll get to later, comes in trying to select teams for a Champions League format, but probably the bigger one is travel. Not for the Kansas's of the world obviously but for teams like UT-San Antonio and Montana.

To combat this, I am going to semi-steal an idea from Glockner (he laid out his ideas on his twitter feed) and make some geographically organized super leagues. The trick here is to try to have four current conferences per each league, and to organize them so that they are competitively even across the board. For example:

Group 1

1. Pac 12

2. WAC

3. Big West


Group 2

1. Mountain West

2. WCC

3. Big Sky

4. Great West (tough because the Great West is probably not going to exist in a few years, plus has schools from New Jersey, etc. in the league, so not geographically sound. But go with it)

Group 3

1. Big 12

2. Horizon

3. Summit

4. Atlantic Sun

Group 4

1. Big 10

2. MAC

3. Ohio Valley

4. Southland

Group 5

1. SEC

2. Missouri Valley

3. Sun Belt

4. Big South

Group 6

1. ACC

2. Colonial

3. Ivy


Group 7

1. Big East

2. SoCon

3. America East

4. Patriot League

Group 8

1. Conference USA

2. Atlantic 10


4. NEC

If you cross reference my picks with Glockner's, you'll see that some of ours are the same (some fit pretty damn well) and some are radically different. His are probably better than mine, seeing as I spent about 5 minutes just tossing random teams down, but the point was just to get a framework as to how this would all work.

Essentially, each group of four teams would be its own geographic pod. To start, there would be a round robin schedule where each team would play each other home and home, and the best record at the end would be the champion of that league. To use our Big 12 example, the bottom 2 (or 3 or whatever) teams from the Big 12 would get relegated to the Horizon, while the top 2 (or 3) from the Horizon would move up to the Big 12, and so on for the other teams.

The question you're asking yourself is "but if Kansas can only win the Big 12, and be the best team in its geographic pod, how do we know who the best team in the country is?" The answer, the College Basketball Champions League, or CBBCL. I am going to liberally quote The Bylaw Blog here, because he says it better than I ever could:


Qualification: Based on a conference coefficient or RPI system. Top three leagues get four bids, two straight to the group stage.

For the soccer uninitiated, the ACC, Big East and Big 10, for example, would see its top three finishers go right to the group stage of the CBBCL, while the 4th place team would go to a home and home two game series, determined by total points scored, to see who also makes the group stage.

Before they get to the group stage, certain teams would be given the chance to qualify via knockout. These would be the champions of the lower tier leagues, who, based on which tier they won, would get entry in various stages of this knockout competition. So, for example, the champions of the NEC and Patriot League would meet in the first round, and the winner would take on one of the tier 3 winners in the next round, and so on and so forth.

This would probably be the messiest part of the competition, and as such it's toughest to explain, but based on past performance (again, KenPom rating, etc.) some of the tier 2 leagues would get its champion and second place team into the preliminary round, just entering at a different stage of the competition.

As for which teams will make up the groups?

Group stage: 32 teams, 8 groups, drawn from four pots. Pots based on team coefficient/RPI system.

This is done to ensure Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, etc. aren't in the same group. For example, here and here are the groups he came up with. As a fan of college basketball, can you imagine all of these games being played on one day, and multiple times per year no less?

Next, the knockout stage. With 32 teams  in the group stages, the winner and runners up of each group would advance to a 16 team knockout tournament. If too many games is a concern, these could be single elim games, but it would be much more fun to do it this way and have it be a home and home, whomever scores the most points wins. Can you imagine having a team like Kentucky coming to Allen Fieldhouse for the second leg of a semifinal, with Kansas needing to win by 10 to advance to the final?

In the UEFA Champions League, teams from the same country aren't allowed to play each other in the round of 16 (or the quarterfinals if I remember correctly). Personally I would get rid of this rule (with conferences, obviously) for the CBBCL. Having a home and home with Texas to advance to the next round would add even more atmosphere to a great event.

While the reasonably obvious solution to determine who plays who in the round of 16 is the winner from group A plays the runner up from group B, etc., like they do in the World Cup, but a much better idea: Selection Sunday is maybe the best day of the college basketball season. How about a LIVE DRAW of who plays who, three times per year? (the groups, round of 16 and quarterfinals). Doesn't get much better than that.

Finally, the final:

Final: One game, ideally rotated around the churches of CBB (Rupp, Cameron, Hinkle, Phog, etc.), but probably in a football stadium.

I would say that Rupp should be taken out and put the Palestra in there instead, and ask tongue-in-cheek why the hell Allen Fieldhouse was mentioned fourth, but I digress. Obviously this would probably be in a football stadium (sadly) but maybe there could be some sort of compromise and put them in NBA arenas, so there's at least some semblance of atmosphere.

By this, you could truly determine, at least as best you could, who the true best team in the country is. But what about the NCAA tournament? After all, it is one of the best things in sports. And what about the little guy?

Both are covered this way:

You still have it, and every team gets in. If you're familiar with the FA Cup, it is a soccer tournament in England open to virtually every official team in England with a usable stadium, from Manchester United down to local pub teams. The number of participants in 2009-10 was 762. Likewise, the NCAA tournament would be open to every team in Division 1 basketball, from Duke to Duquesne.

But, much like the FA Cup, the NCAA Tournament would see better teams getting byes in the first rounds of the competition. So the two worst teams (#s 344 and 345) would have a bye, the next round would be played by #s 344 to 280 or however the math works out, etc. until you get a champion. I didn't do the math, but TBB did, and guess what:

If I did the math right, the top 44 teams would enter in the third round proper (like the FA Cup), and need to win (wait for) six games.

Oh, and like the CBBCL, these matchups would be based on random drawings, meaning more selection Sundays! Plus, in true Selection Sunday fashion, fans could whine about matchups as they saw their favorite team draw a fellow BCS opponent while their biggest rival got to host a mid major. You could also still host the Final Four, and the whole event would have the great one and done feel of the current NCAA Tournament.

The three main benefits of this whole format are this:

1. The importance of conference championships. Winning the Big 12 8 years in a row is freaking tough. It is also freaking awesome. But because Kansas only has one national title in that span, and has suffered some early NCAA tournament losses, that accomplishment gets thrown out the window a bit and leads people to say things like Florida has had a better recent run, which is idiocy. To put on my college hockey hat for a bit, my alma mater won its league, the best one in the country, in pretty dominant fashion. They then won their conference tournament and then advanced to the Frozen Four. But lost in the national semifinal because their opponents' goalie had a career day, and that was it. Meanwhile, the team that won the national champion did so in fluky fashion. Sour grapes perhaps? Yes. True? Yes.

2. The ability to better decide the best team. I don't think anyone can say UConn was the best team in the country last year, national title or not. Here, a team could still go on a miracle run to win the NCAA Tournament, but think of the true dominance involved to win that, your league where you play everyone home and home, and the College Basketball Champions League.

3. One of the main reasons I have been championing promotion/relegation in college basketball forever is for the coaches and the little guys. Right now, Brad Stevens is probably going to leave Butler for a bigger school, like how Jeff Capel left VCU for Oklahoma and Anthony Grant left it for Alabama. Now, Stevens could stay at Butler, get them promoted, and be playing in a conference with Kansas. (this was going to be one of my main points and Glockner stole it. Stole it I say!)

This obviously is an extremely rough sketch, and there would be some kinks to iron out, but to me this is a way better system and would keep all the excitement of the NCAA tournament while alleviating some of the concerns that it is too random to decide who is truly the best team.

Damnit, now I'm all excited for something that isn't going to happen.

note: this is mostly an overview of what it could potentially look like. Over the next couple days I'll mock up what a typical season of this would look like and try to both answer questions raised in the comments and on twitter, as well as expand on some of these ideas.