Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Conference tournaments, who gets the auto-bid and a new idea for an NCAA Tournament format

Monday night was a glorious display of what makes March mad.

After jumping out to a 16 point halftime lead on Drexel in the CAA title game, VCU allowed the Dragons to slowly work their way back into the game. After Rob Brandenburg inexplicably left Chris Fouch, leaving him open to bury a three, Drexel had cut the lead to 57-56 with less than 20 seconds left on the clock. At the same time in the MAAC title game, Loyola's Dylon Cormier had just missed a front-end with 13 seconds that allowed Fairfield a chance to tie the game in the final 13 seconds with a three. Sanders missed and Shave Walker finally clinched the game for the Greyhounds as Frantz Massenet of Drexel, after Troy Daniels had hit two free throws for VCU, missed a step-back three that would have forced overtime.

And that was just the appetizer.

In the nightcap, Gonzaga rallied from five points down in the final 20 seconds to force overtime in the WCC title game against St. Mary's. At, quite literally, the exact same time, Western Carolina was forcing overtime against Davidson in the Southern Conference title by using a flurry of threes and a handful of turnovers to go on a 12-2 run in the final 1:15. St. Mary's eventually knocked off the Zags, with the end of that game coinciding with WCU forcing a second overtime against the Wildcats.

When it was all said and done and the Catamounts had finally missed their last shot of the season -- a good look at a 28-foot would-be game-winner -- I was exhausted. And I wasn't alone. Championship Week had gotten off to a thrilling start as four tickets to the dance were punched in memorable fashion on Monday night. That doesn't even take into account the thrilling finishes in the Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley finals, where Creighton and Murray State, respectively, went down to the wire against a now-irrelevant, would-be bid thief.

It was everything you could ask for. Its why I do what I do.

So why, then, do I feel cheated after eight days of conference tournaments?


There is a growing population amongst us hoop-heads that believe the Ivy League does March the right way.

And the way the Ivy does March is by not doing it at all.

As of 1986, there were only three conferences in the country that didn't award their league's automatic bid to the winner of the conference tournament -- the Ivy League, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which was still called the Pac-10 at that point. From 1987-1990, the Pac-10 actually did host a conference tournament, but due to low attendance and lower revenue getting generated, they dropped it after four years. In 1998, the Big Ten hosted their first conference tournament and by 2002, the Pac-10 decided to, once again, implement a postseason before the postseason.

Which leaves the Ivy as the sole conference in the country that doesn't grant their automatic bid to a conference tournament winner. And to many, that is the proper way to determine a league champion. Just because a team got hot over a three-day stretch in March doesn't mean they are the best team in the conference by any stretch of the imagination.

You prove how good you are over the stretch of a 14 or 16 or 18 game conference season. You go out and you beat, over and over again, the best that your conference has to offer. And while there is a tangible reward to doing this in the leagues with tournaments -- the winners get the No. 1 seed and, in some cases, get to host the conference tournament -- its sets up a situation where those teams are forced to prove themselves all over again.

The thinking is that, if we truly want the league "champion", we should be giving the automatic bid to the team that proved themselves over the course of the season.

The problem?

Monday night.

Those four league title games were sensational theater. They were, quite frankly, what makes March the best month of the year. It is moments like that that make working 18-20 hours a day in March and sleeping five hours a night for five months of the year completely worth it.

You take the automatic bids away from the tournament winners, and you take away those moments and those games. I'm not just talking about the fans either. Go watch this press conference from Loyola's win last night. The players get just as much out of it as the fans do.

To be fair, the Ivy League has had their fair share of drama down the stretch of the season recently. Penn went into Boston and knocked off Harvard two weeks ago, drawing them even in the loss column with the Crimson. That meant that the final two games of the regular season for each team could spell the end of their NCAA Tournament hopes and set up a situation where Penn has to win two more games -- one on Tuesday on the road against their heated rival Princeton and the other a one game playoff against Harvard -- if they want to go dancing.

You all remember how exciting that one game playoff was last season, right? It was one of the best games of the year.

And while league's that were decided by multiple games may not have a thrilling finish to the year, what about conferences like the CAA or the Horizon League? Those finishes would have been wild. The Missouri Valley and the WCC would be just as thrilling down the stretch. In the Big Sky, the last game of the regular season was between the two teams tied for first place in the league.

It wouldn't be the same -- the Championship Week designation and ESPN branding ensures that the nation's attention is focused on the teams they need to know to fill out their brackets -- but that doesn't mean the excitement won't be there. There will still be plenty of games with NCAA Tournament berths on the line, it just won't be packaged neatly as a giant, nationally televised Dick's Sporting Goods commercial.


With everyone's attention fixated on the automatic bids being earned on Monday night, we failed to notice as the biggest problem with conference tournaments unfolded.

Oral Roberts, a team that ranks in the top 50 of the RPI and won the Summit League by a full two games, had blown an eight point second half lead and lost to Western Illinois in the semifinals of their conference tournament.

The Golden Eagles are good. Really good. Good enough that they could win a game or two if they got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and good enough that they aren't going to be able to schedule home games (any games?) against high-major competition. What that means is that their tournament resume probably won't be good enough for the committee to give them an at-large bid come Sunday evening.

The same thing happened to Iona, Middle Tennessee State, and Drexel. All three are good enough to win in the NCAA Tournament. Unless the Selection Committee feels charitable, however, all three will likely be joining Oral Roberts in the NIT.

That's an issue, because losing out on four of the best mid-majors brings down the level of play in the NCAA Tournament.

I like Loyola. I think the Greyhounds are a fun team coached by the ever-entertaining Jimmy Patsos. They might pull an upset, but the odds of them beating a one or a two seed is much lower than that of Iona, who is probably good enough to move up a couple of seed lines as well.

The point is, if the NCAA Tournament is supposed to be a championship, than don't we want the best teams participating.

The answer is yes. And I have an idea on how to make that happen without getting rid of the conference tournaments that we all enjoy so much. Hear me out:

- Expand the NCAA Tournament. Make it a 72 team tournament -- it may need to be more -- which means there will be eight play-in games.

- Give the regular season winner of every conference an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Give the winner of every conference tournament a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If you win both, you get immunity from a play-in game.

- Force all play-in games to be between either the winners of conference tournaments or bubble teams. This is where it gets tricky (and where this theory could use some outside input). The way I see it, how many play-in games there are for 16 seeds will be at the committee's discretion. If there are upsets in a whole bunch of the low-major conferences, then the number of play-in games for a 16 seed will be higher than if the favorites win in all of them.

- Every other spot in the field gets filled by bubble teams. How many spots there are available will vary form year to year.



Jesse said...

I'd like to see a format where both the regular season and conference tourney champs are rewarded with tournament berths. The regular season champs would be given auto bids, and the tourney champs treated as at-larges. There'd be 33 (or however many) traditional at-larges plus the conference tourney winners who wouldn't have otherwise gotten in. The lowest-ranked (by whatever method) of the at-larges would be in the play-in games. The number of games needed would be however many required to give a total field of 64. Then the "real" tournament would commence as usual.

It would be a logistical headache, but if they wanted it to work, they could make it work. I'd rather that than more expansion.

C.D. said...

FWIW, Oral Roberts had Texas Tech at home this year, and also played West Virginia, Oklahoma, Xavier and Gonzaga. Not like they didn't have chances.