Welcome to the world of NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199.1, aka the Qualifying Regular-Season Multi-Team Event (MTE). While early-season and holiday tournaments are as venerable as college basketball itself, their present-day iteration was forged by a 2006 adjustment to the rule governing such so-called “exempt” tournaments, allowing up to four games played under the auspices of a single MTE to only count as one against the NCAA-prescribed maximum of 28 regular season games (teams not participating in an MTE can play a total of 29 regular season contests).
Formerly, schools were limited to no more than two exempt tournaments every four years. The 2006 rule change loosened those restrictions to permit schools to participate in an MTE every year if they like, as long as they don’t play in the same tournament twice per four-year period. So, with a larger supply of eligible schools every season together with a greater demand for tournaments to choose from per quadrennial, an explosion of MTEs has taken place over the ensuing six years.
The allure is not merely the opportunity play a few extra games; it’s the pecuniary perks that come with them. Many conferences now require their member schools to participate in some kind exempt tournament (only one school per conference can play in any particular MTE). Individual schools such as New Mexico and Nebraska recently inked deals with ESPN, which owns and runs no fewer than seven MTEs, to participate in one of the network’s exempt tournaments each of the next 3-4 seasons. The richest of the current MTEs is the Battle 4 Atlantis, as in the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas, which doles out more than $2 million in “prize money” to entice schools to spend Thanksgiving battling for supremacy of their small, strobe-lit converted ballroom, a facility seemingly better suited for Disney’s Festival of the Lion King live show. The University of Northern Iowa alone was given $150,000 plus another $28,000 in travel expenses to find Atlantis last week.
It’s hard to begrudge any college basketball program looking for ways to increase their profile and revenue stream in today’s high-stakes world of college athletics. However, top-ranked schools now demand subsidized vacations to neutral sites as their price for risking an early season loss. While college footballs teams have been scheduling out-of-conference cupcakes for years, yuletide confections are now supplanting the big non-conference basketball game played on a home floor, in a home arena, in front of a raucous college crowd. Thank goodness for the ACC/Big Ten and SEC/Big East Challenges (also ESPN-sponsored events, natch), which require programs to face a major conference opponent on somebody’s home floor at least once during the season.
One casualty of this new scheduling reality is the longtime series between Kentucky and Indiana, schools that have met annually dating back to 1969. Kentucky, whose lone regular season loss last year came at Bloomington, was negotiating to move the series back to neutral sites. However, Indiana, which already has several neutral site commitments as a result of future exempt tournaments on their schedule, did not want to forego another home game in order to continue playing the Wildcats.
Over the past several seasons, N.C. State has faced basketball powers Syracuse, Arizona, Marquette and Florida in home-and-home series. This year, Wolfpack fans at PNC will only enjoy a return match against lowly Stanford atwix the likes of Norfolk State and Western Michigan. Meanwhile, State’s games against Oklahoma State and Connecticut are both part of ESPN-owned MTEs played in Puerto Rico and New York City, respectively.
Last year, Duke played Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas on neutral sites; the best non-conference foes to set foot in Cameron Indoor Stadium were Belmont and Washington. This season, Duke and Kentucky faced off in Atlanta as part of something called the Champions Classic Basketball Tournament. The Blue Devils’ Dec. 8 game against Temple will be in New Jersey. And last Sunday’s top-5 battle against Louisville—the first time the schools have faced each other since the 1986 national championship and the first time Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino have clashed since Christian Laettner’s famed game-winning bucket to win the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final—played out in front of 3,511 vacationers squeezing in a bit of college hoops between mornings on the waterslide and evenings at the craps table. And what do the Cameron Crazies get? Visits from Delaware, Cornell, Elon and Florida Gulf Coast, among others.
For what it’s worth, North Carolina travels to Texas and hosts UNLV this season. But the Tar Heels’ loss to Butler took place in Maui, and their perennial grapple against Kentucky was off the schedule this year, although Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote on his blog last May that the schools may renew the home-and-home series beginning next year. And with visits from UAB, East Tennessee State and Gardner-Webb on the home menu, it’s hard for the Smith Center to not be a wine-and-cheese crowd.
Indeed, while Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams grouse about any perceptible ebb in the size and spirit of their partisans, all that face paint and fervor is reciprocated with December directional schools and perennial ACC competition. And while students and season-tickets holders must settle for the fallow and familiar, their schools are jetting off to aircraft carriers, island getaways and amusement parks to treat others to top-ranked competition in made-by-and-for-TV tourneys. Just as long as the water is warm, the mai tais are cold and the checks clear.