College basketball in 2020-21: Smaller NCAA tournament field, shorter schedule would not be new

If the season tips off in late November as expected, it will not be a historically unusual phenomenon. Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

The Division I Council has spoken. The 2020-21 men's and women's college basketball seasons will start later than usual and consist of fewer games.

And while the council didn't offer specific counsel on how conferences will or should determine which men's teams receive automatic NCAA tournament bids, that, too, could look different this season. Who knows, before it's all said and done, we might even be looking at a smaller field for the 2020 NCAA tournament.

It all sounds new and different, but, in fact, it's all old and traditional. We've done all of these things before. Let's consider the precedents for what we know we're about to see in men's college basketball, and even for what might happen.

Late start

The season will commence play on Nov. 25, which is about two weeks later than what we're used to seeing. Then again, this new start date was itself the "normal" starting time for most college basketball programs 25 years ago. Playing regular-season basketball (as opposed to exhibition games) prior to Thanksgiving is a relatively recent innovation.

On its way to what would be the 1996 national championship, Kentucky played its first official game of the season on the day after Thanksgiving. In the space of just five years, however, that start date would shift two weeks earlier. By the 2000-01 season, the Wildcats were opening their regular season on Nov. 9.

By starting the 2020-21 campaign in the vicinity of Thanksgiving, we are in effect turning the clock back for one season (let's hope) to the 1990s. For anyone who liked college basketball back then, this new start date shouldn't be a problem.

Fewer games played

The Council set the minimum number of games that an NCAA tournament-eligible team is required to play at 13. The maximum was set at 25, or 27 if a program's participating in a multiple-team event. Keep in mind that in "normal" years, teams tend to play more than the minimum number of contests. Last season, the minimum was set at 25 games.

We've grown accustomed to seeing teams start the NCAA tournament having already played 30 to 35 games, but needless to say there's nothing magical about that particular range. It has simply become the custom. While there's no reason we can't once again come up with a tournament field sooner than that, the NCAA's assertion that its NET ranking system is "just one tool" available to the men's basketball committee that should really come into play in 2020-21.

Obviously, not every team is going to get a fair shot at scheduling Quadrant 1 opportunities in a shortened season, one in which major-conference teams will play far fewer nonconference games. (Not every team gets a fair shot at such opportunities in a full season, either.) The committee will have to work overtime to give mid-major programs a level playing field for at-large consideration in a 2021 selection.

Another potential wrinkle for the NET is the possibility that leagues such as the Pac-12 Conference and Ivy League might start play later than much of the rest of Division I. If that does indeed occur, the NET rankings for those teams could initially be less reliable than they are for teams that have played more games. Unlike other rating systems, the NET uses no "priors" and is based solely on in-season performance. Vastly different starting dates could make for an interesting set of NET rankings in January and even February.

The good news for the NCAA is that things should settle down on an evaluative level if teams play enough games. Indeed, we probably know more than we think we know early in the season, as far as which teams really are the best in the country. Every year since 2003-04, the eventual national champion has already been ranked in the top 12 of the AP poll by Week 6.

Awarding automatic bids without conference tournaments

While the Division I Council was silent on the question of awarding automatic NCAA tournament bids in a shortened season, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt has already raised the possibility that leagues could hand such bids to regular-season champions in the absence of a conference tournament.

This, of course, used to be the way things were done anyway. The Pac-12 was still awarding its automatic bid to the regular-season champion as recently as 20 years ago (when the league was the Pac-10). Similarly, the first Ivy tournament wasn't played until 2017.

The Atlantic Coast Conference was an outlier in terms of starting up a conference tournament relatively early in the league's history and then playing it every year until the coronavirus pandemic. The ACC had its tournament up and running by 1954. (There was an SEC tournament as of 1933, but the event was discontinued after 1952 and didn't return until 1979.)

Conversely, the Big Ten Conference didn't start playing its tournament until 1998. The former Pac-10 played four conference tournaments between 1987 and 1990, dropped the idea, then brought the event back starting in 2002.

Naturally, the lack of a conference tournament would dash the NCAA tournament hopes of the lion's share of teams that don't win their league's regular-season title, particularly mid-majors. Over the past 13 years, 54% of the teams that have won mid-major conference tournaments finished first (outright or in a tie) during the conference season. It's the other 46% that could be impacted this season.

Potentially shrinking the NCAA tournament field

The Division I Council wasn't about to weigh in one way or the other on the size of the NCAA tournament field six months in advance. Nevertheless, it's a question that could arise in the near future.

Depending on what course the pandemic takes between now and March, it's conceivable that playing 67 games at 14 venues could prove problematic. In that case, the NCAA might consider the option of reducing the tournament field from 68 teams to a smaller number.

Such a step would indeed mark a significant change. Over the past 35 years, there's been an unusual degree of contentment attached to having a 64- to 68-team tournament. In effect, playing six rounds (or seven if a First Four team ever reaches the title game) feels about right. Then again, that feeling is based on our experience watching tournaments that were structured accordingly.

Before 1985, the tournament included fewer teams, and fans enjoyed those games, too. In fact, NCAA leadership in the early 1980s initially resisted expanding the tournament to 64 teams. The NCAA executive council approved a men's basketball committee proposal to eliminate four automatic bids from the 1983 field and replace them with at-large bids. That never happened, however, because in January 1982, the NCAA membership voted in convention to overrule the executive council's recommendation.

The vote set in motion the chain of events that expanded the field to 64 teams for 1985. But if a tournament with fewer teams takes place in 2021, it will still be basketball worth watching. There's no need to fear a return to the old ways this one time.