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John Clay: I'm OK with Coach K's idea of a 346-team NCAA Basketball Tournament

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 9/9/2020 By John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader

I’m all-in with Coach K and his all-in.

After all, this isn’t going to be like any college basketball season we’ve ever seen before, just like this college football season, with its fits and starts and flare-ups and opt-outs, is not like anything we’ve seen before. Unprecedented. That’s the word we keep hearing over and over and over again. Thanks a lot, COVID-19.

So the idea that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and his fellow ACC basketball coaches are proposing, that all 346 Division I teams be allowed to participate in this season’s NCAA Tournament, makes a lot of sense in a weird, crazy coronavirus kind of way.

“This is a unique time and it’s time to do something unique,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim told the Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A “celebration” was the term ACC coaches used in one report. What better way to celebrate our return to live sports — we hope; masks up, fingers crossed everyone — than to throw open the doors and let all comers have a shot on the Big Dance floor.

The naysayers are already shaking their heads, of course. ESPN chief bracketologist Joe Lunardi is one. He wrote Wednesday that the all-in idea would not work. He cited numbers and logistics and other possible cracks in the foundation. He didn’t mention that if everyone gets in, his annual task of projecting the 68 teams selected for the tournament would be obsolete.

Besides, Lunardi is operating by the old rules. This isn’t a time for old rules. The new ones for 2020 are bound to be messy and uneven. Why the Pac-12 may not even start play until Jan. 1. Other schools are being recruited for possible short-term bubble environments just to get some actual games on the ledger.

Example: Kentucky’s scheduled November appearance in the “Happy Hoopsgiving” event at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. It’s a four-game, eight-team event. The Cats are scheduled to play Georgia Tech. Organizers are now looking into the idea of stretching “Hoopsgiving” out over several days with the eight teams playing multiple games in some sort of round-robin format.

To be clear, I’m not for making this idea permanent. As a rule, I’m not for NCAA Tournament expansion, an idea Boeheim has pitched and most have rejected for the last few years. In my book, 68 teams are already too many. Expanding the postseason tournament only minimizes a regular season that is far too minimized as it is now.

But this doesn’t figure to be your normal regular season. Who knows when it will even start? The calendar tells us we are two months away from the Champions Classic, where Kentucky is scheduled to play Kansas in Chicago. Our mind tells us we have no earthly idea if the Champions Classic will even be played, much less if it’s Nov. 10. After all, most reports say the NCAA isn’t crazy about playing games before Nov. 25.

One more reason to like this idea: The NCAA doesn’t. Part of the incentive for the ACC proposal was a grapevine report that the NCAA was considering reducing the tournament to a 32-team bubble. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander reported Wednesday that the NCAA’s preference is to stick with the usual 68-team field. For now.

Sorry, but usual won’t do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Fact is if teams are forced to earn victories to secure an invitation, they are likely to schedule more games in search of those wins. More games mean more COVID-19 risks. If every program knows it has already qualified, it is less likely to take those risks.

“The safety of our players is paramount,” Louisville Coach Chris Mack said in a statement backing the plan. “The ability to incentivize the regular season without mandating a select number of non-conference and conference games provides options and flexibility for all member institutions. As ACC head coaches, we strongly believe it’s in the game’s best interest to have an all-inclusive 2021 NCAA Tournament.”

I’m all for it.

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