It seems to happen a few times every single year: a team juggernauts its way through the league schedule, only to suffer a stunning upset in the end-of-season league tournament and consequently lose out on an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament in favor of a lesser team.
Why does the college basketball world – particularly the mid-major conferences – feel the need to hand out their Dancing cards in such an unfair manner? All they do is cheapen the value of the regular season by giving lesser teams a second chance at making the NCAA Tournament. Many great seasons have been ruined at the conference tournament level, so why not just scrap them altogether?
Just think of the ways that the game would benefit:
1. Increases the value of the regular season.
It’s the biggest complaint about college basketball: the regular season means nothing. This is because, after a regular season games that includes matchups against every team in the conference, nearly team in the country still has a shot at making the Big Dance as long as they can make it through the end-of-season conference tournament.
These tournaments are essentially mulligans for all of the teams that participate in them, as seeding is the only thing affected by each team’s regular season performance. In other words, each team’s performance over the previous three or four months is rendered almost meaningless.
If conference tournaments are eliminated, suddenly the regular season gains more value. Each conference would still be guaranteed a spot in the Big Dance, and more than likely that spot will go to the team that wins the regular season crown.
Suddenly, league play in every conference would be far more compelling, as a regular season championship would actually mean something more tangible than a top seed in a conference tournament.
2. It would Increase the quality of teams in the NCAA Tournament.
There might not be a better argument for scrapping conference tournaments than the contrast between Middle Tennessee and Liberty.
Few teams in college basketball dominated conference play like Middle Tennessee, which won 19 of 20 games in Sun Belt play (five games ahead of the next-best team) and entered the conference tournament with a 27-4 overall record. But the Blue Raiders stumbled in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Tournament, opening the door for Western Kentucky to take the conference’s automatic bid and forcing Middle Tennessee to hope that the NCAA Selection Committee gives them the benefit of the doubt.
Liberty, on the other hand, finished in fifth place in the North Division of the Big South Conference and entered the tournament with a 12-20 overall record. But the Flames got hot (so to speak) at the right time, winning three games in four days to become the 17th team since 1985 to punch a ticket to the Dance with a losing record and the second with more than 20 losses on the year.
This is not a slam at Liberty, as they earned their conference’s automatic bid fair and square. At the same time, the Flames are being rewarded for a mediocre (at best) regular season because they picked the right time to start winning games, while a Middle Tennessee team that was dominant all season long is being severely punished for getting upset at the worst possible time.
And people wonder why college basketball’s regular season is perceived as meaningless.
Making this change would ensure that every conference sends the very best it has to offer, based on a competition that includes every team actually playing each other. And while it would not guarantee that no team with a losing overall record makes the NCAA Tournament, it would ensure that no team with a losing record in conference play ends up Dancing at the end of the year.
3. Every team would still have a shot at the championship.
One of the great strengths of college basketball is that every team is guaranteed a chance to compete for the national championship regardless of the perceived strength of their conference – a fact that college basketball fans love to hold over their football counterparts.
Some fans, however, mistakenly believe that conference tournaments are the reason for automatic berths and that they would go away if said tournaments were eliminated. This could not be further from the truth: every conference is guaranteed at least one spot in the Big Dance regardless of whether they have a conference tournament or not.
This is hardly a new idea: the Ivy League has never had a conference tournament to determine its NCAA berth, while the Big Ten held out until 1998 and the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) did not add one for good until 2002. All three conferences have had automatic berths for as long as the NCAA Tournament has handed them out.
It’s time for college basketball to return to the idea that the regular season champion gets the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. It would make the season more compelling, ensure that great seasons are rewarded, and also help keep inferior teams out of the Big Dance.
The best teams get rewarded… what a novel concept.