Are Conference Tournaments Bad for College Basketball?

We’re midway through Championship Week, and many teams have already won their spot in the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tournament.  Conference tournament week is a huge deal, as it determines roughly half the March Madness field and can make or break many teams’ resumes as they vie for at-large spots.  However, does this prelude to the Big Dance improve the sport as a whole, or does it do more bad than good?

It really depends on who you ask, but generally, conference tournaments hurt good teams, especially mid-majors, while coming to the rescue of teams who have no business playing in the postseason.  There are three main reasons why this is the case, and why conference tournaments can be a detriment to the sport.

The main reason why this happens is because roughly two-thirds of conferences are what are referred to as one-bid leagues.  This means that 95% of the time, only one team from these conferences will go dancing in March.  As a whole the conference is too weak to receive multiple bids in the committee’s eyes, and that only changes when a team has an exceptional record, losing no more than a couple games in the entire season, and then loses in the conference tournament.  But even then, those teams don’t usually make the field.

Here are a few times this has happened in just the last few seasons.  In 2012, a 27-6 Drexel team missed the tournament.  In 2013, 26-6 Louisiana Tech and 27-4 Stephen F. Austin missed the field.  Just last year, a 24-6 Green Bay team viewed as a favorite to upset a big name team didn’t make the final cut, along with 27-6 Toledo and 26-6 Southern Miss.  These teams dominated their conferences, and then because of one loss, lost everything they worked for, and went to the NIT.  Keep in mind those six teams were only from the last few years, and there were even more 25 win schools I didn’t mention.  This year has already claimed a victim.  When the former #25 Murray State lost the Ohio Valley championship game on Saturday to Belmont, it’s odds of making the tournament were severely reduced.  They still have a chance, but more than likely, the 27-5 Racers won’t be racing into the Big Dance.

The next way conference tournaments may harm the sport goes along with my last point.   Conference tournaments make March Madness less competitive.  Could you imagine what would happen if these talented mid-major teams made the big dance instead of the far worse teams that took their place away (with the exception of Drexel, who lost to VCU)?  The tournament would be even more competitive, and we’d be seeing even more potential cinderella squads than we already do.  Can you imagine seeing 14 seeds with the skill of 12s and 13s?  That’s the kind of situation we’d have if the best team from each conference made the field.  There would be more potential for upsets, and many more good games in general.

However, the way it currently is, any team can win three or four games in their conference tournament and make March Madness, even if they had zero wins prior to the tournament.  While that’s never happened, it’s technically possible.  Here are a few of the worst teams to make the tournament in recent years, along with the first-place teams in those divisions that failed to make it because of a bad team’s lucky run.  In 2014, Cal Poly made the tournament at a disgusting 13-19 over a 23-11 UC Irvine.  In 2013, Liberty, with a horrendous 15-20 record, went dancing instead of 19-12 Charleston Southern.  It doesn’t happen every year, but many times teams with losing records actually make the field.  Just an hour before I write this, now 28-6 Wofford barely escaped with the Southern Conference bid against a Furman team who will end its season 11-22.  Furman was actually the worst team in the conference in the regular season (5-13 in the league), but they somehow managed to win three games in the tournament, and only fell by three points to the Wofford Terriers, a future 12 or 13 seed.  See?  It happens more than you think.  And although I don’t know for sure, I’d venture to say the #1 seed only wins the conference tournament a maximum 50% of the time.  Probably less.

Last but not least, the third way conference tournaments hurt college basketball is through what are known as “bid thieves”, which in some ways are even worse than teams that steal a bid from their conference’s strong mid-major.  These teams steal bids, but in a far more indirect, insidious way.  These are the guys who are to blame when experts talk about a “bursting bubble.”

Bid thieves typically come from conferences that receive multiple bids into the NCAA tournament.  They win their conference tournament, earning an automatic bid, even though they are undeserving.  Here’s the catch, though: since they come from a good conference, the teams from that conference that were supposed to make the tournament still do, but now the team that was supposed to take the auto-bid takes earns an at-large instead.  Now there is one less at-large bid up for grabs, and the bubble shrinks.  The more times this happens in a year, the more bubble teams lose their spot in the field.  Regardless of how they play, if they don’t get their automatic bid, they’ll see their at-large hopes vanish before their very eyes.  Teams this year that could play that spoiler role include UConn, Memphis, Kansas State, Pitt, Michigan, Florida, and Wyoming among many others, but as ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan has said, “it could be anyone.  Anywhere.”

But surely there’s a lot of good that comes from conference tournaments too, right?  Of course.  If there wasn’t, we would’ve done away with them a while ago.  First off, they’re really exciting.  The fact that anyone can win makes every game crucial, especially with bubble teams and teams from lower conferences.  It puts the spotlight on these teams and really sets the stage for the real tournament.  It also gives the bad teams something to play for.  There would be no point for teams with no realistic chance at winning their conference to keep playing late in the season, but with conference tournaments, everyone feels they have a chance, even though it basically turns the entire regular season into a fight for conference tournament seeding in lower conferences.  Lastly, conference tournaments generate a lot of revenue, and we all know the people in power see nothing but green.

What would I do?  It’s difficult, because both sides have some good points and make sense.  However, personally I believe all conferences should switch to the system the Ivy League uses, where the regular season champion earns the automatic bid, and any tie is decided by a championship game between the tied teams.  This way the best team from every conference advances, and good teams don’t miss the tournament like Iona, who just fell to Manhattan, and at 26-8 has little to no chance of claiming a second bid for the MAAC.  At least at 19-13 Manhattan is a decent team with a strong leader in Emmy Andujar.

But wait!  Doesn’t that cut a week or two from the season?  What happens to that time?  That one’s easy.  Just add a couple more non-conference games into the schedule, and everything should work out fine.  Personally, I would throw these games in the middle of conference play, to give bubble teams and mid-majors opportunities to strengthen their resumes right as people start to seriously talk about bracketology and who’s on what side of the bubble.  ESPN ran something called Bracket Buster Weekend up to 2013 where there was a weekend when all the top mid-majors played each other to improve their resumes and get national attention.  This would be kind of like that, except it would last a week or two, and any team could schedule games in that time, not just mid-majors.  Oh, and of course it wouldn’t be run by ESPN, the teams should get to decide their own opponents.

So, what do you think about these tournaments?  Should we keep them, modify them, or get rid of them altogether?  Comments and feedback are welcome.

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