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What Would A 2022 Men’s College Basketball Champions League Look Like?

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s definitely time to breathe fresh life into it.

Real Madrid v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Everyone is aware that soccer is a very popular sport on this planet, yes? Particularly in Europe, yes? Are you aware that every year’s standings in the top European soccer leagues provide the membership and participants for something going on during the following season called UEFA Champions League?

I feel like you should be aware of this. The final for the 2022-23 Champions League — Liverpool from England and Real Madrid from Spain — is coming up at the end of the month.

It’s a really neat concept. If you win one of the 54 national leagues that are a part of the Union of European Football Associations, everyone from Spain all the way down through the UEFA rankings to San Marino, you’re automatically in the Champions League the next year. League of Champions, get it? If you play in one of the bigger national leagues — for 2021-22, it’s the top 15 — you can qualify for the Champions League by finishing towards the top. Spain, England, Germany, and Italy were granted four spots this year, France and Portugal got three, and nine more countries got two teams each for a total of 80 teams.

Once the teams are decided, UEFA sorts everyone into a ranking system and then everyone but the top teams — 26 in this year’s league — have to play through a series of qualifying rounds to get to group play. If you’re not familiar with Champions League, but you are familiar with the World Cup, think of it like CONCACAF creating a system to decide who gets to be in the World Cup group play. Same idea. Group play creates 16 teams for a knockout playoff bracket, and that turns into 8, 4, and then two teams left for the title.

It’s a lot of words to explain a relatively simple concept, sure. It’s also a really fun concept, as you get guaranteed matches between the tippy top clubs all across Europe because everyone plays home and away as a part of not only group play, but also the qualifying rounds. Soccer does love their two game playoff system, just to even out any weirdness from one 90 minute game.

You know what has a collection of leagues competing with each other under one banner? COLLEGE BASKETBALL.

You know what has a real problem with the non-conference/November and December portion of their schedule relative to the amount of attention it gets? COLLEGE BASKETBALL.

I propose to you that we solve this problem with a Men’s College Basketball Champions League.

This is not a new idea by me, of course. I am standing on the shoulders of giants, as John Infante had the idea back before Andy Glockner wrote about it for Sports Illustrated in 2012 and the two of them joined Matt Norlander for a CBS Sports podcast about it in 2013. Click that link for the still available audio of that podcast, which includes the three of them doing a LIVE MOCK DRAW for their iteration of the Champions League. Friend Of The Show Andrei Greska even brought the idea back up in 2019 for an article on Paint Touches.

It’s been three years since the idea has been kicked around, so it’s time to do it again. Heck, maybe I do one of these every year until someone in the college basketball brain trust gets off their butt and starts to put together television partners to get this done. That’s the point of this, by the way: Big time games in November and December to draw eyeballs to college basketball. Everything I’m about to lay out for you here would count as part of the 2022-23 regular season for college basketball. All of the games you’re about to hear about would count as part of a team’s NCAA tournament selection profile for the national championship tournament in March 2023.

We have 32 conferences, so all 32 regular season champions get in. In case of a tie in the standings, the top seed for the conference tournament gets in. 32 is the number you want for group play so the top two teams in each group create your Round of 16 for the first part of the knockout bracket. If you wanted to make it a pure Champions League, you could do it that way. But we’re also trying to get some money kicking around here so we’ll make a concession to television partners and expand the field to 48. Top 24 teams get into group play automatically, the next eight get a bye into the second round of qualifying, and the remaining 16 teams play each other in the first round of qualifying.

Arbitrarily, I assigned multiple spots in the CBBCL to the top seven leagues in the 2021-22 season according to KenPom.com’s conference rankings. Those are, in order:

  1. Big 12 — 4 spots
  2. SEC — 4 spots
  3. Big Ten — 3 spots
  4. Big East — 3 spots
  5. ACC — 3 spots
  6. Pac-12 — 3 spots
  7. Mountain West — 3 spots

All of these spots would be decided by the regular season standings, with seeding in the conference tournament breaking any ties that need to be broken along the way. This adds an extra amount of drama to conference play, as there’s a big difference between finishing third and fourth in the ACC. These allotments don’t have to be permanent, either. Maybe next season, the Pac-12 gets four spots and it’s the West Coast Conference sneaking in to that #7 spot. You could come up with a system that’s a rolling average of conference strength to decide who gets how many spots in the CBBCL field. I just went with KenPom’s rankings from this past season because it was easy to find and use.

These are just made up assignments by the way, other than we can only distribute 16 extra spots. If you wanted to drop a spot from the SEC and give two spots to the eighth best conference — the American Athletic Conference in this circumstance — you could do that. If you wanted to make it just the top two from each of the top 16 conferences, fine, but again: We are trying to make television partners interested in throwing gobs of cash at everyone to put these games on the air.

If you wanted to give the NCAA tournament champion a spot in the field, that would work as well. Heck, once this gets up and running, you could reserve two spots, one for the NCAA champion and one for the previous year’s CBBCL champion. There’s any number of wrinkles you could add to this to give things a little more spice.

With all of that in mind, here’s the list of the 48 teams participating in my CBBCL format based on last year’s results. They are sorted by their final NCAA NET rankings, which is the order that we will use to determine which teams go into what part of the qualifying process. I used the NET that the NCAA generated late in the national championship tournament instead of KenPom because that way we have multiple ranking systems at work to put teams into the field. That feels like a better process, but if someone wants to yell at me about the mathematical science of it, well, that’s what the comments section at the bottom is for, isn’t it?

2022 CBBCL Participants

Team NET Ranking
Team NET Ranking
Gonzaga 1
Houston 2
Kansas 3
Arizona 4
Baylor 5
Villanova 6
Tennessee 7
Texas Tech 8
Kentucky 9
Duke 10
UCLA 11
Purdue 12
Auburn 13
Illinois 15
Texas 16
North Carolina 17
Connecticut 18
Arkansas 21
Providence 24
Wisconsin 25
Murray State 29
San Diego State 30
Boise State 34
Colorado State 35
AUTOMATIC ENTRY TO SECOND ROUND
USC 40
Notre Dame 43
Davidson 46
North Texas 55
Vermont 56
Chattanooga 63
South Dakota State 67
Towson 71
FIRST ROUND PARTICIPANTS
New Mexico State 78
Toledo 86
Iona 89
Northern Iowa 98
Princeton 107
Colgate 124
Texas State 127
Montana State 128
Longwood 131
Jacksonville State 148
Long Beach State 159
Norfolk State 169
Cleveland State 179
Nicholls State 192
Bryant 205
Alcorn State 262

The first round of qualifying is those 16 teams at the bottom of the list. For my system here, I just went with one head-to-head game with the top eight teams in the NET hosting the other eight teams. As the best team in Round 1, New Mexico State hosts Alcorn State, the lowest ranked conference champion. Toledo hosts Bryant, and so on and so forth.

And so that brings us to an Opening Day of the season lineup that looks like this:

2022 CBBCL First Round

Game Home Away
Game Home Away
1 New Mexico State Alcorn State
2 Toledo Bryant
3 Iona Nicholls State
4 Northern Iowa Cleveland State
5 Princeton Norfolk State
6 Colgate Long Beach State
7 Texas State Jacksonville State
8 Montana State Longwood

Are there any immediate headliner games in there? No, there’s not, but people tune in to watch the First Four games with the 16 seeds involved because there’s something on the line. Opening night of the season, and you get all of these games with a spot in the second round of qualifying on the line. Maybe first two nights of the season since there’s eight games and only so much television space, but you get the idea. If you wanted to stretch things out a bit here and turn this into the two leg thing that UEFA does where you have to win the two games with a better aggregate score so both teams get to sell tickets to a home game, you could, but I think you’re just getting a little too goofy with basketball at that point.

For the purposes of pushing this along to pool play, I flipped a coin to determine a winner in every one of these games. Random chance gave us five home winners and three road winners there, and then I resorted them into their NET ranking order, and paired them off against the eight teams that got the bye into the second round. The teams that got the bye get to be the home teams here, and the same thing as before where USC, the best team with a bye, hosts Nicholls State, the lowest ranked team to advance.

If you wanted to do these two rounds by random draw instead, just for the entertainment value of putting a selection show on TV, you absolutely could do that. Draw all 16 spots, home and away, to decide who plays where. A little over the top for our purposes here since we’re not actually playing the games and just flipping coins, but it’s an option.

That gets us a Round Two schedule that looks like this:

2022 CBBCL Second Round

Game Home Away
Game Home Away
1 USC Nicholls State
2 Notre Dame Cleveland State
3 Davidson Jacksonville State
4 North Texas Montana State
5 Vermont Colgate
6 Chattanooga Princeton
7 South Dakota State Toledo
8 Towson New Mexico State

Once again, these eight games were subject to the flip of a coin to decide winners to get us to a group stage. Is that unfair to Southern Cal, Notre Dame, and Davidson, who all lost to Nicholls State, Cleveland State, and Jacksonville State respectively? MAYBE, but this is perfect for the point that we’re trying to get get across here. How wild would it be to have the entire college basketball landscape focused on a USC/Nicholls State game or a Notre Dame/Cleveland State game or a Davidson/Jacksonville State game because a spot in group play is on the line, AND ALSO COMING DOWN THE WIRE, the Colonels/Vikings/Gamecocks have a chance to win AND THEN pull it off? High drama, way more than anything else you’re going to get from a randomly created First Weekend Of The Season game.

That gives us our 32 teams for group play, and they split into these four pots:

Pot 1: Gonzaga, Houston, Kansas, Arizona, Baylor, Villanova, Tennessee, and Texas Tech

Pot 2: Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Purdue, Auburn, Illinois, Texas, and North Carolina

Pot 3: Connecticut, Arkansas, Providence, Wisconsin, Murray State, San Diego State, Boise State, and Colorado State

Pot 4, which is all eight Round 2 winners: Vermont, South Dakota State, New Mexico State, Princeton, Montana State, Jacksonville State, Cleveland State, and Nicholls State.

I did the random draw to decide the teams for group play because this part absolutely should have a televised selection show. You bring in big names from the college basketball landscape — promise a colar to Roy Williams, and he’d be perfect for this — to pull out the balls with the strips of paper in them, you have Greg Gumbel hosting the whole thing, make a whole spectacle of it, guaranteed ratings on a Tuesday night in mid-November. I actually did the draw as a Twitter Space which you can go back and listen to if you feel so inclined, but this is what it all shook out at:

2022 CBBCL Group Stage

Pot A B C D E F G H
Pot A B C D E F G H
1 Villanova Kansas Arizona Baylor Gonzaga Houston Texas Tech Tennessee
2 Texas Purdue Auburn UCLA Illinois Kentucky Duke North Carolina
3 Colorado State Arkansas Boise State Murray State Providence Wisconsin Connecticut San Diego State
4 Princeton South Dakota State Nicholls State Montana State New Mexico State Vermont Jacksonville State Cleveland State

When I did the draw, it was just Pot 1/Group A, Pot 1/Group B, and so on and so forth. I’m not actually trying to schedule games here, so I didn’t do the “Group A, Position 3” part. I would presume that the actual selection would do that, since you want the games going off in a particular order and preassigning positions to games makes all the sense in the world. All we’re trying to do here is show you (and hopefully an actual decision maker or 42) how great it would be to get all of these games on the schedule in November and December when there’s not much else going on in college hoops.

Each of the groups would play a home-and-home series against each other. Villanova going to Texas, Colorado State, and Princeton as well as hosting them. All of these games count as regular season games for the 2023 NCAA tournament selection process, so that adds a bit of importance to the whole thing as well. How is Vermont going to look to the selection committee if they don’t win the automatic bid in the America East but still got six total games against Houston, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, three home and three road? Probably going to help, right? Is it possible that we get a multi-bid league from one of the mid-majors as a result of this? Definitely possible, right? If nothing else, it pushes things in that direction.

After the six group stage games are played, the top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds. I’m guessing that we’ll probably need some tiebreakers to figure this out because it seems unlikely that anyone goes a perfect 6-0, but that’s easy enough. Head-to-head and record against top team not in the tie should be enough to sort through most of the tiebreakers.

Imagine the first weekend in December where we get Baylor/Arizona and UCLA/Auburn as single elimination games because those teams advanced out of their groups to the Round of 16. Or Texas Tech/Tennessee and Connecticut/North Carolina. You get the idea. Big time games, built up by three weeks of group play, big time stakes. These can be done on neutral sites in a four day swing just like the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight if someone wants to get fancy and organize it, or maybe the group winners get to host the 16 and 8 rounds and the semifinals/finals are at a neutral site. Or whatever, at this point, we’re just being picky about details. Actually getting this off the ground and moving is more important than where the games are played.

I would imagine that all of this could get knocked out by January 1st at the latest. If the timing doesn’t work out, then let the CBBCL games start earlier than the regular season for everyone else, and then you get extra attention for the preliminary rounds. We’ll have to come up with some sort of system where the teams eliminated in qualifying play either other to fill in their schedules since they have to leave their schedules open to play in the group stage and knockout rounds, but since we can start using the knockout round losers once we get to that point, I feel like we can make that work with very little effort. If Marquette can randomly decide to play at North Carolina in the middle of a pandemic, we can figure out a way to get USC and Northern Iowa to play each other on relatively short notice because their calendars are suddenly wide open.

I am almost 100% sure that I have left out something very obvious to my brain but not at all obvious to the reader. If you have questions or comments or possible improvements or whatever have you, pipe up in the comments section. No bad idea in a brainstorming session, and that’s essentially what this is.