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There should be a mid-major Champions League and this is how it would work

No one says no to more games.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - West Regional - Anaheim
Is there another competition out there for Mark Few to conquer?
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Remember BracketBusters?

The ESPN showcase ended in 2012 and it was good fun, even if at the end it was dinging mid-majors as much as it was helping them out. Yet every season one or two people will fondly reminisce about it in our mentions and hey, who doesn’t love to dream about matching up the best from the mid-major ranks? (You know, other than in the first round you crooks).

So let’s get creative. What if all 25 of our mid-major leagues got together and forgot about trivial things like immovable scheduling obstacles, irresponsible travel costs and danger to at-large resumes, and banded together to create European-style Champions League competition?

In soccer, the UEFA Champions League gathers the top finishers — 32 teams total — from the individual European leagues in the previous year and pits them together in a tournament where teams qualify out of a group stage and advance into knockout rounds. This includes the champions of each league, as well as the second, third or fourth place teams from the stronger leagues — judged by a ranking system — such as the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.

Closer to home, basketball’s EuroLeague puts 16 teams into a round robin schedule before the top eight advance into a knockout tournament. The main difference being that 11 teams have “long-term licenses” and qualify for the tournament perpetually, regardless of whether they won their domestic league the previous year.

With that background, let’s think this through.

The 2019-2020 field

The initial 25-team field includes the champions of each conference we cover, with some liberties taken to break ties when teams shared the regular season title. Shared champions that won the league tournament — such as Liberty or Utah State — got the nod, while if neither team won the league tournament the higher rated KenPom team got the nod, such as Loyola Chicago. It’s an imperfect method but you get what you pay for. In any event, here’s the field, seeded by strength of conference per KenPom:

Seed, KenPom Rating, Team, Conference
(1) 2 Gonzaga (WCC)
(2) 22 Buffalo (MAC)
(3) 38 Utah State (MWC)
(4) 42 VCU (A-10)
(5) 77 Yale (Ivy)
(6) 18 Wofford (SoCon)
(7) 124 Georgia State (Sun Belt)
(8) 131 Loyola Chicago (MVC)
(9) 113 Old Dominion (CUSA)
(10) 53 New Mexico State (WAC)
(11) 96 Northern Kentucky (Horizon)
(12) 122 Radford (Big South)
(13) 58 Liberty (ASun)
(14) 126 Colgate (Patriot)
(15) 93 Hofstra (CAA)
(16) 92 South Dakota State (Summit)
(17) 73 UC Irvine (Big West)
(18) 49 Belmont (OVC)
(19) 76 Vermont (AE)
(20) 137 Montana (Big Sky)
(21) 198 Iona (MAAC)
(22) 176 Sam Houston State (Southland)
(23) 211 Fairleigh Dickinson (NEC)
(24) 209 Prairie View A&M (SWAC)
(25) 244 Norfolk State (MEAC)

Filling out the field

Even though we’re suspending reality, we can’t bend the rules of time and space so far as to think of this as a 25-team, round robin competition. A tournament is what makes sense and to that end we’ve got to get to 32 teams. To get those extra seven deserving non-champions, we’ve got two routes: the Eye Method or the Analytics Method.

The Eye Method looks at traditional strength and dishes out an extra two bids to the second and third place finishers in the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Missouri Valley and WCC, and lop off the lowest ranked team per KenPom (in this case, the third place finisher from the MVC, 146th-ranked Southern Illinois). That would throw the following teams into this year’s mix:

  • 27 — Nevada (share of first, MWC)
  • 31 — Saint Mary’s (second, WCC)
  • 85 — Davidson (second, A-10)
  • 135 — Drake (share of first, MVC)
  • 62 — Dayton (third, A-10)
  • 71 — Fresno State (third, MWC)
  • 86 — BYU (third, WCC)

But there are obvious problems with this. You aren’t getting a field that reflects the strongest teams from that particular year, even if you’re leaning on the likelihood historically strong conferences will produce quality depth. With this method, a league like the SoCon or ASun — which has considerable heft at the top — is ignored for a “bigger” league in the midst of a slight down spell like the MVC. So, with the Analytics Methods you take the seven highest rated second place finishers (or those that shared first but lost the tiebreaker), regardless of league.

  • 27 — Nevada (share of first, MWC)
  • 31 — Saint Mary’s (second, WCC)
  • 45 — Lipscomb (share of first, ASun)
  • 49 — Belmont (share of first, OVC)
  • 61 — Toledo (first MAC West, second overall)
  • 85 — UNC Greensboro (second, SoCon)
  • 89 — Northeastern (second, CAA)

While this produces a seemingly more deserving field, it isn’t without flaws itself. Basing qualification around league standing — which is a necessity here — leaves out very good third and fourth place finishers like Furman, East Tennessee State, BYU and San Francisco. Still, this is probably what this dunce of a commissioner would roll with at this time.

The Gonzaga situation

It’s something we’ll just have to address. You don’t like it — chances are you really don’t like it — but the Zags have to be included in our Champions League. The Mid-Major Champions League only works if each of the 25 leagues are included, and the WCC on the whole undoubtedly is a part of that. And since this is league-based affair, we can’t exclude the Zags, even if they’re a high major team playing in a mid-major conference.

The year-over-year problem, exacerbated

One thing that’s hard for me to wrap my American brain around is the idea that in soccer, the Champions League doesn’t necessarily feature the strongest teams at that particular moment. It’s a backward-looking league, basing itself on accomplishments that happened a year ago. While the best teams in the world still are likely to be included given the heavyweights in European soccer don’t regularly change, that is not the case with our beloved mid-major game.

Program success at that level is often tied to individual coaches, who in turn often move when that success comes home to roost. So while teams like Buffalo, Wofford and Nevada were deserving and would be compelling had the competition taken place during the 2018-19 season, they may not be as up to snuff in 2019-2020, when they’d get the chance to actually compete based on that success. Does putting a rebuilding Bulls team on the two-seed line make sense? Probably not, but that’s the nature of the competition.

So who’s getting those sweet, sweet licenses?

Say we went the EuroLeague route and handed out permanent licenses, who would get them? I’d feel relatively good about considering, when you take into recent propensity to win their respective leagues or to field strong teams. This is a very easy question that isn’t likely to get people riled up.

  • Gonzaga
  • VCU
  • Dayton
  • Davidson
  • New Mexico State
  • Saint Mary’s
  • San Diego State
  • Murray State
  • Belmont
  • Vermont
  • Texas Southern
  • Bucknell
  • Harvard

Disagree? Have different thoughts on how this thought exercise should work? Make sure to let us know.