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Redrawing the 2016 NCAA Tournament: Replacing First Rounds with Group Play

Let's take a method used by many international soccer tournaments and apply it to the NCAA Tournament.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the UEFA Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario being played right now, it sort of feels like a pseudo-World Cup (in my limited soccer opinion anyways). As the Copa enters the semi-finals and Euro finishes group play, it got me thinking:

What if the NCAA Tournament had a similar format? Group play for the first rounds, followed by single elimination games?

After all, some of us don't like the full single elimination format given Purdue's early exits the last 2 seasons. To paraphrase one of our staff members, it's not the best format to determine the best team in the country because it's all about luck and timing.

I personally like the tournament as it is, even if Purdue lost in the first round 2 years in a row in overtime(s). Every round is exciting, especially when a team can be beaten by a smaller school (unless it's Little Rock). But I can see why people have this complaint. Since having each round as a 3-5 game series isn't feasible (sorry NBA fans), I think group play might be a good happy medium.

With group play, you can still have the euphoria of an upset, but one loss won't completely kill a teams chances in advancing in the tournament. Even if a team has a bad loss or two and won't advance, they will still play at least 3 games in the tournament, and the last game could be used as a "final hoorah" for the outgoing seniors, rather than having their college careers end too early like we saw with Ray D and AJ this past season.

So how would group play work? Well, much like the international tournaments, we would have 16 groups, A through P, with 4 teams each. Group play would occur during the first weekend of the tournament with each team playing 3 games within their group in 3 days (Half the groups will play Thur.-Sat., the other half will play Fri.-Sun.). The two teams with the highest point totals after the 3 games will advance to the next phase of single elimination games. Points are assigned as follows:

3 points for a win
2 points for winning in overtime
1 point for losing in overtime
0 points for a loss

Tie breakers would then be determined by: 1) head-to-head results, 2) point differential, 3) total points scored (higher the better), 4) total points given up (lower the better), 5) coin flip because we can and I don't want any more tie-breaker scenarios for my tournament that might never happen.

The second weekend will be back-to-back-to-back games of the Round of 32, Sweet 16, and Elite 8 (Half the teams will play Thur.-Sat., the other half will play Fri.-Sun.), with the following weekend featuring the Final 4 and National Championship. While this adds a few games (especially 3 games in a row for the teams) the tournament will still be completed within its current 3 week timeline.

I've gone ahead and visualized how that tournament would look like every year:

Another option would be to have only the winners of each group advance to the Sweet 16, where the winners of Group A and B would play each other, followed by C vs D, E vs F, and so on. It would make group play a little more difficult and exciting if a big team had an upset; but for now, I'm going with this format for consistency among the other major soccer tournaments. Now comes the fun part: group assignments.

Of course, I could be boring and use the groups sort of formed from the current tournament. For example, Purdue would have been in a group with Little Rock, Iowa State, and Iona. But that's boring and too easy for me. We're going big here and making our own groups, damn it!

For the FIFA World Cup, the 4 teams in each group are drawn from 4 separate pots, and are generally: 1) The top ranking teams + host country, 2) European countries, 3) Americas and Asia, 4) Africa and other countries.

In order to mimic this, I have created 4 pots with 16 teams each using the teams that were in the 2016 NCAA Tournament (to simplify this, I only used 64 teams, which eliminated the "Last 4 In" teams. Sorry Vandy, Michigan, Wichita State, and Tulsa). For rankings, I used the ultimate ranking/seed the NCAA provided for the tournament that ranked the teams 1-68. From this, I created 4 pots of 16 teams:

Pot 1: The Top 16 (from the NCAA's ranking)
Pot 2: East Region (Featuring conferences like the ACC and Big East)
Pot 3: Central Region (Featuring conferences like the B1G and SEC)
Pot 4: West Region (Featuring conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-12).

Teams were divided into these regions based on where their conference best fit overall and where there was space (yes, this means that West Virginia would have landed in the West Region had they not been in the Top 16). Since there was some overflow in Pot 2/East Region, I randomly took the lowest seeded teams that overflowed and randomly placed them in pots that had extra space. Afterwards, the 4 pots looked like this:

Teams highlighted in green won their conference tournaments and earned automatic bids. Teams that are in italics were overflow from one pot and were randomly placed in other pots to give each pot 16 teams.

From here, I took the teams in Pot 1 and randomly selected them and distributed them into the 16 different groups, followed by Pot 2, then 3, and then 4. I even pulled their corresponding numbers (1-16, seen on left of picture above) out of cups to make it an actual draw because I really wanted to procrastinate my real work:

After some time, each group was set, and the final result was:

Well then, this turned out very interesting. You can tell I am being honest about groups being blindly selected because Purdue ended up in a not-so favorable Group N with Kentucky, Seton Hall, and Colorado. Yikes.

From the start you can see that some groups would be very entertaining/Group of Death-ish, like Group C. Meanwhile, teams like Virginia and Texas A&M get a cakewalk for their groups. Such is life, I guess.

Certainly, there are some downsides to this that I'm sure some will mention. #1 seeds aren't always guaranteed an easy path to the Sweet 16. Before, they just need to beat a #16 seed and out perform and 8/9 seed. Now, they could get stuck in a Group of Death just to advance to the Round of 32. Or, certain groups could be so easy for one team that it could cost the NCAA money and ticket sales. In addition, teams would have to play 3 games in 3 days for the group play method to work (so it doesn't take up too much time), followed by another weekend of 3 games in a row if they were to advance out of group play (unless we cut out the Round of 32 and only group winners advance to the Sweet 16).

However, I do think there are more pros than cons in this scenario. First and foremost, a team isn't doomed by losing one game. Purdue and Michigan State could lose to teams like Little Rock and Middle Tennessee and still have a chance at advancing in the tournament, or they at least know they're playing only one more game with the seniors since each team has at least 3 guaranteed games. Smaller teams, depending on which group they get, could also have a better chance advancing beyond the first and second rounds. For some, that's a pro, for others it's a con. I'll let the readers debate among themselves about this.

This would also make Selection Sunday entertaining again ( #MakeSelectionSundayGreatAgain ). The current format is boring and brackets get leaked because of it. Imagine if teams making the tournament are revealed, followed by a live-drawing of each group. People would actually watch and not sleep through it like I did this year. Plus, the live-drawing would eliminate some doubts that the committee is purposefully trying to set up the tournaments for upsets and/or early money-making match ups (like Indiana/Kentucky in the 2nd round this past year; that wasn't an accident).

I know this will never happen and I might have wasted my Sunday afternoon playing with this, but it was still fun trying to form it. And my fake tournament could happen and is somewhat realistic, because even here Purdue got placed in a not-so favorable group.