Let College Teams Play in the NBA Cup

And pay them for it, too.

Ja Morant of Murray State talks with a referee
Tonight’s game: the Golden State Warriors against the Murray State Racers. Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The future of the NBA is near, and it’s full of tournaments. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reports league and team officials held a conference call shortly after the Finals to discuss implementing “a midseason cup and postseason play-in tournament” during the 2021-2022 season. The conversation is described as a “very exploratory” and “wide-ranging brainstorming session with accompanying documents” (documents!), but it’s a signal that the NBA is open to making major changes to its structure. Kind of.

The NBA already has a grueling six-week tournament, and the most recent iteration ended with two superstars suffering catastrophic injuries down the stretch. In a perfect world, the NBA would simply shorten the regular season and forget about these mini-tournaments. But revenue is based on the number of games played, and so this proposal amounts to a concession: The league is happy to shorten the regular season so long as it doesn’t actually shorten it. According to Arnovitz, “the number of games in a reduced regular season discussed on the conference call ranged from 58” (which is not going to happen), to a “marginal cut of only a handful of games” (which is totally going to happen).

The NBA is trying to rectify one problem (the stakes are too low during the regular season) without directly addressing the real issue (the season is too long). Single-elimination tournaments are, by virtue of the format, high-stakes affairs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the NBA’s new mini-tourneys will be entertaining. The playoff play-in, for example, would be the NBA’s version of the wild-card game. That may seem like a fun detour from the norm, but I promise the novelty of watching the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets duke it out for the No. 8 seed every year will wear off quickly.

The midseason cup, meanwhile, is far more confusing. Adam Silver spoke about the idea with Mark Stein in May, and he cited European soccer as an inspiration. While tournaments like England’s FA Cup (the oldest such competition in the world) are played throughout the year, Silver has said that he wants the NBA’s version to occur during All-Star Weekend. That doesn’t matter, though, because the timeframe isn’t what makes the FA Cup fun—if anything, that’s what makes it a slog. The FA Cup is great because teams from the country’s lowest leagues are invited to play. There are 736 entrants in total, meaning that, every so often, a bunch of electricians and cabbies get to play against the biggest soccer stars in the world. If Silver really wants to copy how they do it overseas, then he should commit to something objectively amazing: He should invite college teams to participate.

The NBA has a lower division (the G League), and those teams should be invited, too. But it’s the inclusion of college programs that solves all the inherent problems of a hypothetical midseason cup. NBA players won’t care about a fly-by-night tournament that is in its infancy. The All-Star break is a vacation for the majority of the league, and so it’s unfair to ask them to lay it on the line for The First Annual State Farm Cup (Presented by Hankook Tire). Should the league invite college kids to play, however, the pros’ collective pride will be immediately put on the line. Sure, it will result in tons of embarrassing beatdowns, but, on the bright side, some of those will be administered to Duke.

An NBA vs. college tournament may never yield a single upset, but the sheer chance that it could one day happen makes it all worthwhile. After decades of guessing, we’ll finally get the definitive answer to that age-old question: Could a college team beat the New York Knicks? (Maybe! Watch and find out!)

This radical idea won’t just make the NBA Cup exciting—it will also help fix college basketball. The solution’s not complicated: In the NBA Cup, everyone gets paid. Like, a lot of money. Ad revenue is going to be through the roof, and I want to see those kids leave the arena on diamond-encrusted scooters. If the point guard from Eastern Kentucky wants to try and drive past Kawhi Leonard on national television, then he deserves the biggest paycheck he can get.