“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” — “The Fly,” 1986
The 2013 NCAA Tournament was a celebration of the parity of college basketball.
Out of the 68 teams selected, only 32 came from the six power conferences, which at that time featured the current Power 5 leagues and the old Big East.
This was before realignment. Before the ACC gobbled up Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, and before Xavier, Butler and Creighton joined the new version of the Big East.
College basketball was more balanced across the board then, and it created the type of canvas that dreamers loved to paint on.
The 2013 NCAA Tournament featured a combined 14 bids from the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference.
An aberration? Not entirely. Just a signal to how much things have changed in the past four-and-a-half years.
Moving forward, they’re about to change even more.
FanRag Sports reported on Sunday night that Big Ten head coaches voted in favor of going to 20 league games, with the expected starting point likely to be the 2018-19 season.
This comes on the heels of the ACC’s decision to expand to 20 conference games in 2019-20.
What does it mean for schools outside the Power 5 model, with the exception of the Big East, moving forward? A lot fewer chances to earn NCAA Tournament bids on an annual basis.
“Moving to 20 league games is going to change the entire model,” one Big Ten athletic director told FanRag Sports last week. “They want to wipe out the non-Power 5 schools from getting at-large bids completely. Moving to 20 games makes that more of a realistic possibility.”
How much have things changed in four-and-a-half years?
In 2013, both the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West Conference each had five teams in the NCAA Tournament. That was two more than the SEC (3), one more than the ACC (4) and the same number as the Pac-12 (5).
Why have conferences like the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West normally seen less representation in the field of 68 since 2013? A number of reasons.
The Atlantic 10 followed up its 2013 showing with six NCAA bids in 2014, but a shift to 18-league games in an attempt to be on par with the Power 5 leagues hasn’t worked as the conference has hoped.
Only three teams from the Atlantic 10 have heard their name called on Selection Sunday in each of the past two years, and the only sure-fire bet for the field of 68 in 2018 is Rhode Island.
The Mountain West?
This has now become like any other mid-major conference over the past few years — a one-bid league — mostly due to the rebuilding situations that have lingered at both UNLV and New Mexico. San Diego State has also missed the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons; in 2016, the Aztecs won more than 25 games and advanced to the finals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament but still didn’t do enough to earn a bid.
Where do these leagues turn now in terms of scheduling with most power conferences toying with the idea of all going to 20 games?
That’s to be determined.
This writer wrote over the summer that the Atlantic 10 and American Conference needed to investigate an early-season “challenge” in an effort to get the teams at the top of their respective leagues better games, but the American’s addition of Wichita State may have changed its urgency to participate in such an event.
With the addition of the Shockers, this league now has a bona fide top-tier program to go alongside Cincinnati, SMU, Temple and others.
Another thing to keep in mind?
The American hasn’t gotten the mileage it’s hoped the past few years out of its two strongest brands — UConn and Memphis.
If that changes, this could be easily be a four- or five-bid league on an annual basis.
Most college coaches will tell you that scheduling is the second most important part of any program, after recruiting, and it’s going to get even harder.
If most teams from Power 5 leagues are committed to 20 conference games — and in the Big Ten’s case, an additional tilt in both the Gavitt Games and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — then there’s going to be very little wiggle room with scheduling.
“You’re going to be committed to 24 or 25 games before you can even begin your schedule when you consider that you’re also probably playing in a preseason tournament,” one Big Ten assistant told FanRag Sports last week. “There’s going to be minimal room to work with.”
And that also severely hurts programs in leagues like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West because it inhibits their ability to get home-and-home situations with teams that boast a higher level of cachet.
With 20 league games in place, the metrics are set up for teams from the Power 5 conferences and the Big East to eat up the majority of the at-large bid each-and-every March.
“The Big Ten isn’t doing this to get six teams in the NCAA Tournament,” one Big Ten head coach said last week on the condition of anonymity. “They’re doing this to get programs like Penn State and Nebraska into the NCAA Tournament. Going to 20 league games will create more opportunities for teams that aren’t usually in contention. That’s the goal of this.”
But what about the other leagues in college basketball these changes will affect?
Are all conferences outside the Power 5, with the exception of the American and the Big East, destined to become one-bid leagues moving forward?
How can the administrations of these conferences create more opportunities for the teams in their leagues to get more non-conference chances to move the needle in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee?
Time will tell, but one thing is for certain: Many non-Power 5 leagues are officially on the clock.
Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.