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Let's reengineer the NCAA Tournament using the format of the UEFA Champions League Group Stage

If it ain't broke, fix it theoretically with a Slack thought exercise taken way too far.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Everyone loves March Madness. There is no substantial call to change the format of one of America's most cherished events. Filling out brackets, calling upsets, and finding a way out of work on Thursday and Friday are sacred activities in this country. Even people who don't really pay attention to college basketball get in on the Madness (and annoyingly win your bracket pool).

But let's strip this thing down to its foundation and start all over anyway.

This all started in our Slack chat, when I argued that the NIT Champion should receive an auto-bid to the following season's NCAA Tournament. It's an idea I ripped straight out of European soccer, in which the winner of that seasons Europa League (the second tier tournament) gets to play in the following year's Champions League (Europe's premier soccer tournament). Having only started watching earnestly a couple of years ago, I have a burning desire to take these concepts from foreign lands and jerry-rig them onto the sports back home to show off a manufactured sense of worldliness and intelligence that you, the Non-Soccer Watcher, cannot possibly comprehend. Which led to this idea:

Apply the Champions League Group Stage format to the NCAA Tournament.

The UCL has several rounds of qualifying and playoff rounds that would essentially be taken care of in college basketball by the regular season and conference tournaments. The good stuff starts in the group stage, and that's where we'll start. So here are the ground rules:

  • We're using the 2016 NCAA Tournament seed list and 2016 KenPom rankings so we can compare the new format to a tournament field that already existed.
  • Conference ranking is determined by total conference adjusted-efficiency margin.
  • We're cutting the field to 64 teams, apologies to Vandy / Michigan / Tulsa / Northern Iowa. (EDITOR'S NOTE: I forgot UNI won the MVC tourney and should not have been eliminated, and it should have been Wichita State. Since it's a thought exercise, I'm not correcting it, call the cops I don't care. Conference tournaments are dumb. Destroy them forever.)
  • There will be sixteen groups of four teams, each group is assigned to one of the eight regional sites where they'll play a round robin (3 games per team, 6 games total) on the normal Thursday - Sunday schedule, with one group starting on Thursday and the other on Friday, leaving the Friday-Saturday TV schedule to be jam-packed with games. Obviously this is more like the World Cup with three neutral site games as opposed to 3 home/away ties. Shhhhhh.
  • No teams from the same conference in the same group.
  • Group winners advance to the Sweet Sixteen which will have the bracket established with a random draw on Monday.
  • If two teams are tied atop the group standings, the winner of the head-to-head game advances. If three are tied, best point differential advances.

So the first thing we need are our groups. We'll do it similar to the UCL by getting out four pots and putting sixteen teams in each one. Groups will be created by drawing one team out of each pot.

POT A: Conference champions of the top six conferences (for 2016 it went, in order: Big 12, ACC, Big East, Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC), along with the top 10 at-large bids.

POT B: Next 16 at-large bids

POT C: Conference champions of the conferences ranked 7-16, and the last 6 at-large bids.

POT D: Conference champions of the conferences ranked 17-32.

NOTE: I'll give the committee the latitude to elevate a conference champion from 7-16 into Pot A or B and send an at-large down if the situation calls for it. Call it the Wichita-Gonzaga Rule. However, neither team was seeded that high in 2016.

Why do the top-six get preference? Because they're typically a handful of standard deviations above the rest when it comes to efficiency margin. If a lesser conference has a great year, however, they'll get the spot and push someone else down. It's fluid year-to-year even if it will often be the usual suspects (Power Five plus the Big East).

The 32 at-larges would be determined by the tournament selection committee, just like always. But since I'm steering this theoretical ship, I'm not letting them use RPI and banning anyone from the committee that so much as mentions it. Criteria will be a blend of the objective (KenPom, Sagarin, strength of victory, etc.) along with the subjective (injuries, current form, etc.). By using a random draw, we no longer have to waste time on the details that come with writing out the bracket (avoiding rematches, geographic considerations, etc.) and just get the 32 at-larges selected and ranked, interspersing the 7-16 conference champs as necessary.

So last year would have looked like this, conference winners in all-caps:

POT A: KANSAS, NORTH CAROLINA, VILLANOVA, OREGON, INDIANA, KENTUCKY, Virginia, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Xavier, West Virginia, Miami, Utah, Texas A&M, Duke, Iowa State

POT B: California, Purdue, Maryland, Baylor, Texas, Notre Dame, Arizona, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Dayton, Iowa, Oregon State, Texas Tech, Colorado, Southern California, Saint Joseph's



We monkeyed with this countless times and every single time Pot C is a complete disaster. The fact you have an equal chance of drawing UNC-Wilmington or Fresno State as, say, Butler or the criminally under-seeded (in 2016) Gonzaga or Wichita State is hilarious. But that's always been A Thing in the Big Dance, sometimes you catch a break in the draw, and sometimes you're playing Kentucky in Sweet Sixteen despite winning your conference.

You also have teams like Stephen F. Austin (41st in KenPom) and Yale (46th) lurking in Pot D but that's not any different than a normal tournament draw in which a really good team is stuck in the 12-14 range and then knocks off a power team rather easily.

So now the draw. I used a random sequence generator of numbers 1-16 and ran it four times to get the groups then switched within each column as necessary to keep conference teams away from each other (there were only three instances) and I was always able to find a team with a KenPom rank within 10 to switch them with. Each team's final KenPom rank from 2016 is in parenthesis and the group's average KenPom rank is at the end.

Group 1 Xavier (14) USC (49) Hawaii (60) FGCU (163) 71.5
Group 2 Oklahoma (10) Wisconsin (38) Wichita State (13) Arkansas-Little Rock (56) 29.25
Group 3 Virginia (3) Texas Tech (54) Cincinnati (32) Yale (46) 33.75
Group 4 WVU (8) Iowa (22) Gonzaga (21) Holy Cross (285) 84
Group 5 UNC (2) Baylor (24) Connecticut (26) Stephen F. Austin (41) 23.25
Group 6 Miami (15) Maryland (23) VCU (31)
Austin Peay (217) 71.5
Group 7 Iowa State (20) Colorado (57) UNC-Wilmington (83) Hampton (248) 102
Group 8 Indiana (11) Texas (39) Syracuse (27) Stony Brook (94) 42.75
Group 9 Michigan State (5) Oregon State (64) Fresno State (108) Weber State (142) 79.75
Group 10 Utah (33) Notre Dame (37) Providence (44) Cal State Bakersfield (110) 56
Group 11 Kentucky (6) California (28) Green Bay (127) Iona (104) 66.25
Group 12 Villanova (1) Arizona (19) Temple (86) Chattanooga (109) 53.75
Group 13 Texas A&M (18) Purdue (9) Pittsburgh (36) UNC-Asheville (131) 48.5
Group 14 Kansas (4) Saint Joseph's (43) South Dakota State (80) Fairleigh Dickinson (280) 101.75
Group 15 Oregon (12) Dayton (59) Butler (30) Southern (229) 82.5
Group 16 Duke (17) Seton Hall (29) Buffalo (138) Middle Tennessee State (119) 75.75

Lots to digest here. Let's start with the hilarity of Indiana's group, stuck with  the team that ended their best shot at a title in over a decade. Group 13 is the only instance of the team from Pot B being ranked higher than the team from Pot A, while there are several instances of the Pot C team being better than the Pot B team.


  • Groups 5 gets the prestigious honor of being the GROUP OF DEATH largely because they drew the best teams out of Pot D.
  • The worst team, by KenPom rating, in Group 3 is Texas Tech out of Pot B. Wild!
  • The average rating doesn't tell you the whole story, as some of these groups have three great teams (Group 4 in particular) but are being dragged down by a horrific team from Pot D (shouts to Holy Cross).
  • Kansas, Michigan State, and Iowa State make out like bandits, they would be heavy, heavy favorites in all three of their games.
  • The distribution is decent, with seven groups being harder than the average KenPom rank of the 16 groups and nine groups being easier. Not bad for a random draw. The extremes were limited, with only two groups having an average rank in the triple digits and two groups averaging better than 30th.

Now we dispatch our groups, two at a time, to a regional site with preference going to the top-6 conference champions and the rest worked out to best accommodate the Pot A teams. Everyone else is along for the ride. Here's how it shakes out:

Providence: Groups 3 and 6

Des Moines: Groups 9 and 14

Raleigh: Groups 5 and 16

Denver: Groups 2 and 13

New York City: Groups 4 and 12

St. Louis: Groups 8 and 11

Oklahoma City: Groups 1 and 7

Spokane: Groups 10 and 15

After the group stage would come the KNOCKOUT ROUNDS. This is where we'll transition to a more familiar-looking bracket, jumping right in at the Sweet 16 with all the group winners being drawn semi-randomly into the bracket. I say "semi-randomly" as we won't let conference foes play each other in this round, either (next round would be fine). Furthermore, unlike the UCL, we're not going to be playing home-and-way ties, as that's not a format that lends itself to basketball. Instead the rest of the tournament is going to look a lot like the old tournament. The team that wins their next four games after the group stage will be the NCAA Champion.

What makes this format preferable, in my humble opinion, is it gives each team more opportunities to show out in the nation's premiere college basketball showcase. By utilizing a group stage, each team is guaranteed to play in three games (as opposed to one) which does a couple of things: it puts more product on TV and possibly entices fans to spend more money on seeing their team, knowing that they're not going to get bounced after forty minutes on the court.

Drawbacks: probably not as many giant-killings as we typically see. Though it's certainly possible a low or mid-major could get hot and win their group, it's not going to happen at near the frequency it does in the original format, where upsets aren't just a regular occurrence, but vociferously rooted for by any fan base that isn't the favorite. You also wouldn't get to fill out that big glorious bracket, but can I tempt you with TWO OPPORTUNITIES TO WIN MONEY FROM FRIENDS AND FAMILY AND COWORKERS?

Think about it! Stage one of the tournament pool is picking the group winners, whoever gets the most right gets the cash. Then you move on to stage two, which is just filling out a Sweet Sixteen bracket for another round of cash. You can even add in a bonus round where everyone picks the tournament winner before the group stage starts, setting you up with a chance to win three different times. That's dope as hell. Why aren't we doing this already?

@NCAA: COPYRIGHT KYLE SWICK (call me with offers, cash only)