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What’s Going On with the Vancouver Showcase?

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For the second year in a row, the Gophers find themselves in a poorly organized holiday tournament. And their schedule is suffering.

NCAA Basketball: the Barclays Classic-Alabama vs Minnesota Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After holding out on us for far too long, the Gophers finally relented and announced their full-season schedule on Thursday, giving us a picture of what to expect this season and who will come rolling through Williams Arena this fall. At first blush, it looks like a regular old schedule with a full Big Ten slate, a bunch of cupcakes, a couple neutral court matchups and a holiday tournament. But if you look real close, you’ll notice that the Gophers have only scheduled 30 games total. Technically, with a holiday tournament in tow, they’re allowed to have 31 total games. And in this day and age, every game counts, so you need to max out that schedule in any way possible. But, as we dig into this a little bit, the reason for the discrepancy is anything but simple.

Ready to get weird?

First off, it’s important to note that the Gophers have been invited to participate in the “inaugural” Vancouver Showcase, along with Texas A&M, Washington and Santa Clara. I put inaugural in quotes because it was technically supposed to debut in 2017 but this convoluted press release explains that organizers decided to push it back for a calendar year for unknown reasons. Skeptical? You should be. Let’s keep going.

Second, let’s get a quick refresher on MTEs. For this we need to loop in Blogging The Bracket’s Chris Dobbertean for a little professorial session, because I’m already out of my element. Chris?

The long and short of it is that by participating in what the NCAA calls a “qualifying regular-season multi-team event” (MTE), a team can schedule 30 or 31 games during the regular season (or up to 32, if there’s a trip to Hawai’i in there). If a team doesn’t participate in an MTE, it can only play 29 games. With the Big Ten going to a 20-game conference schedule this year, you can see why every league member has signed up for an MTE.

Note that there are still non-exempt tournaments out there, the most famous of these being the Sun Bowl event in El Paso, but they count as a hard two games against your scheduling cap, which is why only mid-majors participate in them at this point.

Okay, so teams like the Gophers are incentivized to play in these MTEs for a chance to get up to 31 games on the schedule and boost their resumes for postseason play (and make money). Got it. On to the Vancouver Showcase right?

Well, not so fast. The Showcase is technically supposed to be made up of eight teams. The four host teams (Minnesota, Santa Clara, Texas A&M, and Washington) are each supposed to host a pair of lower-tier mid-majors in the early days of the new season. Then, they head to Vancouver to play a four-team bracketed tournament. In turn, the four mid-major visitors would also get to play out their own bracket in Canada in the day session. So, in the end, everyone gets the maximum four games permitted under the MTE rule. Easy!

However, the other four teams have not been announced yet. Could it be that event organizers simply haven’t gotten around to it? Well ... no.

You see, UC-Irvine was originally supposed to be in that bottom bracket, and planned to face Texas A&M and Santa Clara before the Showcase, just like they were supposed to. Six days ago, they announced that they had pulled OUT of the Vancouver Showcase, and are now playing in the Gulf Coast Showdown instead. Talk about a canary in the coal mine. That implies the Anteaters were spooked enough by the prospects of this tournament that they left to join another one. NOT GOOD, FOLKS.

Now, is this just bad luck, or have we reached a tipping point of ridiculousness with these MTEs? Let’s go back to the Vancouver Showcase being pushed back by one year. Dobbertean suspects this was likely because of difficulties the organizers had in getting teams to sign up to begin with.

That was thanks in large part to the ESPN/Nike-backed Phil Knight Invitational taking 16 (mostly) brand name teams out of the exempt tournament pool. That tipped off a domino effect on other fields. And it really didn’t help that we’ve reached “peak MTE” over the past couple of seasons.

“Peak MTE”? You don’t say.

There’s simply a lack of available teams out there. I’ve been tracking these events since 2012 and this is honestly the first season in that span when I’ve found myself throwing up my hands in frustration at what’s going on with how convoluted these events have become. At the moment, I know of only 10 teams that are either not yet connected to an MTE or have already released a schedule indicating they’re foregoing one for this season. And that’s out of 353 teams in Division I this season.

So, let’s regroup. Essentially, the Vancouver Showcase lured teams like Minnesota in by saying they’d get two home games against not-awful mid-majors and would get to play in a bracketed holiday tournament with national exposure. And now they’re having trouble making good on the two bonus games because there literally aren’t enough teams left in the nation to play.

So how are the Gophers impacted right now? Well, to be honest they’re kinda still figuring that out. No, seriously. Per Marcus:

While full team schedules were released Thursday, there is a possibility Minnesota could add another game.

Two Gophers home games that were part of an agreement to play in the Vancouver Showcase were not agreed upon this summer as expected. Minnesota scrambled to add one home game in time for the schedule release, and a second game might be added soon. However, sources told the Star Tribune the game might not be at home.

Minnesota could end up playing an extra game in Vancouver during their long-scheduled Nov. 18-20 Vancouver Showcase trip. The Gophers play Texas A&M (Nov. 18) and either Washington or Santa Clara (Nov. 20), and a third game could be added Nov. 21.

So the final game might be played at home. Or it might be played on the road. Or it might not be played at all. What a clown show. Actually, it kind of reminds me of a tournament the Gophers played in last year where they were supposed to play at the Barclays Center (you know, as part of the Barclays Center Classic) but the organizers double booked the venue and forced Minnesota and UMass to play in a 2,000-seat MAAC gym.

At the end of the day it’s just one game, but in an age where every game counts for the postseason (especially if you’re leaving a home game against a good team like UC-Irvine on table), this type of thing is pretty frustrating.

But why is it happening? For starters, it’s the classic Tragedy of the Commons (shout out to all those economics majors out there). Mid-majors want in on the action that comes with joining an MTE, and organizers are happy to oblige. Only, nowadays mid-majors to benefit (like getting to host a home game), not to be target practice for major programs. According to Dobbertean, the Barclays Center Classic is going to be a round-robin this year with Pitt and Saint Louis playing a showcase game in Brooklyn so that the three mid-majors involved each get a home game.

And the impacts are being felt downstream. This year there are 15 MTEs that are supposed to feature eight teams, split into two four-team groups (higher-tier and lower-tier mid-major). Only 10 of these events were able to stay true to that format and a couple of those events don’t feature everyone playing the full complement of four Division I games allowed under the MTE rule.

Meanwhile, eight-team MTEs that play out a traditional three-round bracket, like the Maui Invitational, have started to set up “regional round” brackets to give their participants a fourth-game, always at home. The Gophers directly benefited from this in 2013.

Predictably, these types of tournaments are also having trouble getting mid-majors willing to lose a pair of power-conference road games before playing a bracket out in a mid-major gym over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s just not worth it any longer. According to Dobbertean, neither the Maui or Atlantis tournaments filled its regional round field out in 2018, leading teams like Arizona, Duke, Butler, and Wisconsin to seek a waiver to schedule their own games because there weren’t enough interested/available opponents for them. We’ve officially entered the era of “waiver games.”

Such is the modus operandi in college basketball these days.