Dribble Handoff: What changes are needed for the 2021 NCAA Tournament amid COVID-19?


It took less than 24 hours for NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt to shoot down the gargantuan idea presented this week by ACC basketball coaches calling for every Division I team to qualify for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. But the proposal spearheaded by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sparked an interesting question.

Should the 2021 NCAA Tournament be modified for this unique season that will be played amid the COVID-19 pandemic? It’s uncertain what the sport’s nonconference schedule will look like, and some leagues are reportedly prepared to play conference-only schedules, if necessary. Can some low-major conferences afford to play at all? Paying for the COVID-19 testing and other measures that will be necessary to stage a 2020-21 season won’t be cheap.

All the uncertainty lends credence to the idea that temporary modifications to the format and selection criteria for the Big Dance could be needed. The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to meet Wednesday and could approve a Nov. 25 start date for the season. Perhaps then we’ll start to get clarity on what this unique season — and the NCAA Tournament — will entail.

For now, three of our college basketball writers are taking turns as czars of the sport and responding to the following prompt: What one-year change would you make to the NCAA Tournament — if you had to make one — in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Have 64 teams instead of 68

When Mr. Cobb lobbed this topic out to us in Slack this week, the first fix I had come to mind was to eliminate the conference tournaments and just award each regular-season champion an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament. It’s something that would bring true urgency and increased importance to college basketball’s regular season. But the more I thought about it, the more that’s a regular-season update and not a tournament one. So my choice is to go back to perfect: reduce the field from 68 to 64 teams. 

In August, I laid out almost every conceivable bracket format the NCAA should prepare for and consider. (I couldn’t have imagined anyone would be as audacious to suggest all eligible teams make the field, but thankfully that idea died a quick death.) From 1985 until 2001, the NCAA Tournament existed in its purest, flawless form: 64 teams. No weird play-ins with 65 or 68 teams. Just 64. Big enough to give all schools a chance at cracking the dance but not so large to diminish the importance of the regular season. For many reasons, going back to 64 this season makes sense. Keep bracket integrity without the add-on of four more teams. 

The biggest reason I’d make this change is it would almost certainly only be a one-year thing. The NCAA is never going to go back to 64, because it already gets a 64-team tournament in the 14-or-so hours between the last Final Four game being played late on a Wednesday night and the first first round game tipping off that opening Thursday of the tournament. But there’s something precious and so much that’s perfect about building a 64-team bracket, letting it sit on the stove for four days and building the anticipation there. It’s geometrically pristine. It’s how the tournament always should be — and it makes at-larges all the more difficult to attain. We should be rewarding merit. Make it 64 in 2021. — Matt Norlander

Expand to 96 teams

I hate, hate, hate the proposal from the ACC’s coaches to expand the tournament to an all-inclusive format. But I absolutely love, love, love the idea of expanding ever-so-slightly from 68 to 96. You keep the exclusivity of March Madness, but in adding 28 teams, you’re opening your arms up to chaos. And isn’t that what we all love about the NCAA Tournament?

Matt Norlander laid out the potential proposal here — which he tagged with a to-the-point DON’T EVER DO THIS warning. But he also did so by noting that a 96-team format would only be worth a look if the season had fits and starts, which in the middle of a global pandemic absolutely seems plausible. 

Getting to 96 is simple, too, even if unique: two bids per league (with 32 leagues) gets you to 64 teams. Then you leave the door open for the remaining 32 spots to at-larges. Voila. — Kyle Boone

No team with a losing record in their conference can make the tournament

College basketball’s nonconference schedule figures to be a disjointed mess that will provide a skewed national picture when it comes to evaluating NCAA Tournament resumes. For that reason, a higher emphasis should be placed on the conference slates.

Power conference coaches probably won’t like this idea. But it would preserve the meaning of the regular season and reinforce that qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is a reward instead of a birthright for anyone with a mediocre record in a power conference. The sport does not need a 6-14 Big Ten team that only played two nonconference games campaigning for a spot in the NCAA Tournament because it upset Michigan State and Iowa and had no “bad” losses.

What the sport does need is a 9-10 Minnesota team and a 9-10 Purdue team playing in a regular-season finale with NCAA Tournament eligibility on the line. The game would have the intensity of a Sweet 16 contest, even if no fans were present.

There are two caveats under this proposal. First, a team with a 10-10 league record would not have its NCAA Tournament eligibility impacted by losing its only game in the conference tournament. But a squad with a 9-11 league record would be eligible for the NCAA Tournament if it scrapped back to .500 with a strong showing in the conference tournament.

Oklahoma, Ohio State, Minnesota and St. John’s each finished with losing records in league play in 2019 and received at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament anyway. None of them advanced past the second round. Let’s make this regular season matter and eliminate teams with similar league records from the 2021 NCAA Tournament field. — David Cobb





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