Sun Belt basketball tournament changes format; event will stay in New Orleans _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP University of Louisiana at Lafayette guard Jay Wright (1) shoots while being guarded by Arkansas Little Rock forward Mareik Isom (14) during their semi-final game Saturday March 12, 2016 in the Sun Belt Men's Basketball Tournament at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.

LAFAYETTE — The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament will change its format to include each of its members and will also remain in New Orleans through 2019, the league announced Wednesday.

New Orleans, which is where the Sun Belt’s headquarters are located, has served as the host city for the basketball tournament since 2014. The conference’s contract with the Lakefront Arena was set to expire after next year’s tournament.

“New Orleans represents a showcase platform for the Sun Belt Conference basketball championships,” SBC commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement. “Our student athletes and fans will continue to enjoy a first-class basketball experience at Lakefront Arena while also having the unique opportunity to experience a world-renowned city.”

The conference membership agreed last fall to make the tournament open to each team in the league. Previously, only eight teams made the tournament field.

That will be made easier by the addition of Coastal Carolina, which will join the Sun Belt on July 1 and will compete in the 2016-17 basketball season, rounding out the league at 12 teams rather than 11.

“Including all teams in the tournament will enhance the student athlete experience and give all of our teams a chance to make a run for the Sun Belt title,” Benson said. “Having completed our membership structure with 12 teams will also make for a more balanced tournament format.”

Under the previous eight-team format on the men’s side, the bottom four seeds played each other in the first round, the third and fourth seeded teams got a first-round bye and the top two seeds earned a bye for the first two rounds.

The tournament also ran Thursday through Sunday, leaving the possibility open for a team to play four games in four days.

Under the new structure, the bottom eight seeds will play on Wednesday, March 8, with the winners advancing to play the top four seeds on Friday. Each of the top four seeds only receives a first-round bye.

The women will follow the same format, with the first-round games starting Tuesday, March 7 and the second round games following Thursday, March 9.

This is a big departure from the previous format on the women’s side, which had featured all eight teams playing on the first day of the tournament.

Both the men’s and women’s championship games will take place Sunday, March 12, with the men playing at noon and the women at 5 p.m.