on September 11, 2020
As coaches and administrators deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, many have turned to outside-the-box thinking throughout the college sports landscape. Baseball coaches presented the New Model, a plan to push the season back a month. Notre Dame, long a staunch independent in football, has joined the ACC this fall. Most conferences are exploring playing fall sports during the spring semester.
Anything and everything is on the table in this unprecedented year for college athletics. And if that wasn’t true before, it certainly has to be this week after the ACC basketball coaches on Wednesday unanimously voted to propose that every eligible basketball team make the NCAA Tournament this spring.
The measure, which has prominent proponents in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, was quickly met with a sharp dose of reality. NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt on Thursday said there are no plans to expand the tournament.
But Gavitt’s statement didn’t stop the idea from creating shockwaves around college sports. It didn’t take long for me to consider how the idea could be adapted for baseball. While nothing of the sort is on the table and it would be incredibly difficult to pull off in a baseball season that is likely to already be an unusual one, it’s still a fun hypothetical to explore.
There are 302 Division I baseball programs this year. Seven are in the process of reclassifying from Division II and are therefore ineligible for the postseason. Stephen F. Austin is ineligible due to sanctions related to its Academic Progress Rate.
Having eliminated those eight teams, college baseball is left with 294 postseason eligible teams. It’s an inelegant number to create a bracket from. Dividing them into four-team regionals like we typically see in the NCAA Tournament creates 75 regionals, which doesn’t work for a bracket. If instead the tournament was constructed with the six-team regionals that existed for a period prior to the tournament’s expansion to 64 teams, that would create 49 regionals. If you massaged it a little, it wouldn’t be hard to get to 48 (mostly) six-team regionals. The 48 winners of those regionals could then be grouped into eight six-team super regionals with a spot in Omaha on the line, just like the tournament was in the mid-1990s.
The upside to such a format would be that the tournament would fit in a similar footprint that it does normally—playing out over the course of four weekends. But the six-team regionals were unwieldy and take five days to play out. Having them in consecutive rounds is not optimal for college baseball in the 21st century—not when arm care is a priority and the tournament has become a television event. It also doesn’t give much of an advantage to the best teams in the country.
So, is there a better format for a 294-team tournament? I think there is, though with the caveat that anything other than the six-team regionals format will be a bit more complex or take much longer to play out.
I would propose a format that gives the top 16 teams a bye for what we know as regional weekend. They would host regionals just like they do in a normal year. From the remaining 278 teams, 202 would be divided into 48 pools for what we’ll call pre-regionals. That leaves 76 teams, which would face off in a play-in game during the week leading up to pre-regionals. The 38 winners would advance to pre-regionals. Ideally the play-in games would be based on geography and could be played Tuesday or Wednesday at campus sites.
That leaves 240 teams in pre-regionals grouped into 48 pools of five. Five-team regionals are a bit of a challenge, which could be dealt with in one of two ways. The first would be to have another play-in game between the bottom two seeds and then proceed with a four-team, double-elimination tournament. The second would be to play a five-team, double-elimination tournament where the top seed gets a bye from the first round of games. In that scenario, there would be eight or nine games in a pre-regional, two more than in a four-team regional. Jamming nine games into four days is manageable but leaves no margin for rain outs. Some weekends would assuredly spill over from Monday to Tuesday due to poor weather.
The 48 pre-regionals winners would then advance to regionals, where they would join up with the 16 hosts. From there, the tournament could progress as it normally does—double-elimination regionals, best-of-three super regionals and the College World Series.
The pre-regional weekend would have to be geographically based to work. With fewer nonconference games, computer metrics like RPI and more subjective evaluations like the regional advisory committees both will be more limited. Asking the committee to seed 294 teams without being able to rely on metrics they usually do would be too much, especially when they already don’t seed 64 teams in a typical year. They would still need to seed teams within a pre-regional, but the RACs should be able to provide guidance to that end.
Hosts for pre-regionals may also have to default to the best available facilities. Lights would be a must and a turf field in many parts of the country would be a significant advantage in trying to get eight or nine games played in a weekend. Not every top-seeded team in a pre-regional may be able to meet those requirements or simply handle having four other teams on campus.
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Any such scenario is highly unlikely to ever come to fruition. If the NCAA isn’t currently considering expanding the men’s basketball tournament, by far its biggest money maker, it’s hard to imagine it doing so for any other sport—even baseball, which is also a profitable tournament for the NCAA. Beyond the complexity of putting together such a sprawling event, perhaps during a continuing pandemic, there are also the questions of whether every eligible team advancing to the NCAA Tournament would devalue the regular season and whether there would really be an audience for an even more sprawling postseason.
There are, however, some real positives to the idea of an all-inclusive 2021 NCAA Tournament. After canceling the 2020 NCAA Tournament and granting every player an eligibility waiver for the lost season, this would give them all a chance to compete for the national championship.
It also would remove some of the inequities that are sure to crop up this spring in what many expect to be an unusual regular season. Many schools have already had to redo their nonconference schedules and several conferences have canceled or reduced their conference tournaments. How all of those changes will affect which teams make the NCAA Tournament—either via at-large bids or automatic bids—remains to be seen, but there will certainly be an effect. Putting every team in the NCAA Tournament would help level the playing field between teams that are able to play close to a normal season and those who might only play a conference slate or see the first month of their season axed to save on the travel budget.
An all-inclusive NCAA Tournament would be big, sprawling and complicated. But it would also mean a lot of baseball and after a lost 2020 season and what will likely be a strange 2021 regular season, maybe an expanded postseason is just what college baseball needs.