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The Debate: What will the NCAA Basketball Tournament look like in 2021?

When March arrives, will the tournament be bigger, smaller, or the same?

NCAA Basketball: Yale at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Debate. Each week, this article presents a topic for discussion. Whether in the comments section, on the golf course, or around the weekend game table (with proper social distancing of course), the goal is to provide enough background that either side could be a winner. In order to facilitate the discourse, a suggested beverage pairing is also included. So speak up, mix it up, and drink up.

It has been nearly 200 days since fans last saw the Tar Heels in action on the court or the field. Tomorrow will bring some semblance of normalcy even without fans. It may look more like a private scrimmage than a season opener, but it is college sport and it is back.

Through this most difficult summer, The Debate has broken the doldrums with fun topics of conversation. A few weeks ago, we looked at possibilities for the 2020 NCAA Football Championship. These strange days allow for unique options.

The same, apparently, is true for college basketball. As well covered by Brandon Anderson here, the ACC has recently come out in favor of every team making the 2021 NCAA Tournament. As we finally head back to live action and look ahead in earnest to the upcoming basketball season, this seems like the perfect question for debate.

The Debate for the week of September 11: What is the most likely scenario for the NCAA Tournament in 2021?

Point: There will be fewer than 68 teams in the 2021 tournament.

College Football is an enormous economic machine and over a third of the nation’s teams have already decided not to participate. The same is going to be true for basketball, unfortunately. There may not be full conferences that cancel the season, but there will be a lot of individual schools that remain in on-line classes and decide that the risk of having students gather together for any reason, including practices and games, is just too high.

Once schools start dropping out, conference schedules will be thrown into chaos and the NCAA will struggle with a solution (as usual). The concept of just throwing up their hands and letting everyone in is a logistical nightmare. The real answer is found in the past.

In March, as conferences were cancelling tournaments and states were shutting down, the NCAA considered a 16 team tournament in Atlanta. This would have been the first “bubble” as it turns out. Now, take that idea with about two days of planning and give it six months of planning and preparation. The concept of going small will work.

The NBA has proven that a bubble can work for 22 teams. The NCAA is likely to follow suit. Pick a large venue from a hotel standpoint. Allow every conference to determine its champion in any manner that it sees fit, and let all of the champions play a tournament in the bubble. That’s a convenient 32 team tournament. If conferences choose not to attend, then either grant byes or give a handful of at large bids.

The conference-champion only format survived until 1975 for the NCAA Tournament and is the most likely option for 2021.

Counterpoint: The Tournament will still have 68 teams play, but will include alternates.

Selection Sunday is going to be unusual. With the likelihood that teams will not play a full slate of non-conference games, the comparisons between seeds will be all eye test and totally up for debate. There could be very little actual competition to compare at-large bids. No common opponents between teams from different conferences. No ability to determine any computer generated power rating without cross-pollination. All opinions.

Moving forward without great logic, however, has rarely been an impediment for the NCAA. The financial hit for missing a year of the tournament was significant. The loss of two years would be disastrous.

Even though there will be 68 teams announced, it would make sense to also announce a handful of alternates. The field should be released two weeks prior to the first games so that all teams can quarantine if they choose to participate. The bracket would then be released 2 days before the first games with an emphasis on regional play and a significant reduction in travel. The eight pods could be reduced to four large regional sites where 17 teams (one play-in game per pod) play for the regional championship and move on to the Final Four.

The process may be unusual. The timing will be different. The games, however, will be played as usual with a full field.

Counter-Counterpoint: There will be more than 68 teams - a lot more.

Is it possible to have a tournament with 350 teams? It may not seem intuitive, but that is only two additional rounds. It is the logistics that make such a proposition difficult but I suspect that some officials have been longing for another week of tournament play with every college fan having a rooting interest.

The bracket would be four pages in the local paper.

So, how would it work during a pandemic? First, there would have to be byes anyway because there are not 356 teams. If teams decide not to play the season, or not to play the tournament, then they would just create more first round byes.

Conference play would be required to finish by March 1 and on that date, all teams would travel to one of 16 designated sites where they would quarantine in a bubble for 14 days. This would be about 20 teams per site (depending on how many teams opt not to play). Play would not be elimination style, but rather full brackets (think pre-season tournaments) with the top four teams from each site advancing. Four of those sites would then serve as regional locations with re-seeding and pure elimination play to the Final Four. One site remains as the Final Four.

One more kicker: the Regional runner-ups travel to the Final Four site as well. They play a consolation bracket and serve as alternates if a team has to drop out due to illness.

Time for you to decide!

Will 2021 see fewer teams in the NCAA Tournament than normal? Perhaps there could still be 68? Could there be more in this year of experimentation? Readers do not have to agree with the logic but at least one of these is definitely going to be correct (yes, I am totally disregarding any possibility of cancellation)! Let me see the comments.

Drink Pairing

Four Roses Small Batch. I like three cubes of ice but certainly understand those who prefer it neat.

Special Thanks

It is always a little bitter sweet when fall begins. I love The Debate but offseason topics can be a challenge. Next week, The Hangover will resume and I hope readers enjoy the return to actual analysis of sporting events. This summer has been particularly challenging as my father, one of the biggest Tar Heel fans in the world, passed away in June after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was always my sounding board for a good debate topic and provided the pessimistic view I need for true hangover articles. I miss him dearly. Check out this interview with him from April. I want to send a special thanks to my wife, family, and friends for supporting me through this dark time. Here’s to better days.