Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why The Conference Tournament System Sucks

A typical mid-major college basketball team’s tournament life rests on one thing: an automatic bid, achieved only by winning the conference tournament. Conference play during the regular season means about as much as a book written by Jose Canseco. A team can run the table during the regular season, win the first two games of a conference tournament and still have their bubble burst. The NIT is their consolation price. This is kind of like getting a hand job after taking a girl out several times.
I am a fan of Vermont basketball, and this is exactly what happened in the 2007 conference tournament; we got stuck banging the fat chick (Kansas State) in the NIT. I never second guessed the system until that fateful Saturday morning— since you probably have no idea what I am talking about, this is what happened: we went 15-1 in conference play (one flaky game against a mediocre Maine away from being 16-0), got to the conference tournament final versus a team we had beat twice during the year, and we coughed the ball up on the last possession before getting a shot off—and now I don’t understand how anyone can stand by the conference tournament system. In mid-major conferences all over the country, conference play determines seeding for the conference tournament. In many cases, this has no bearing on whether you get home court advantage, as some conferences elect to play the tournament on a neutral court.
Since it is difficult to prove my point by pointing out really good teams who never get a chance to shine on a national stage (thus making their credibility obsolete), let me put this in perspective with a couple “what-ifs”: What if Davidson had gone 20-0 in the Southern conference and stumbled in their conference tournament to Georgia Southern (or Appalachian State) and never got a chance to make their inspiring run to the elite-eight in 2008? This actually happened to Davidson in the 2005 season, when they went a perfect 16-0 in conference play and were upset in the semifinals of the Southern tournament. Chattanooga, one of three teams in the Southern Conference to go 10-6, stole the Southern Conference’s only bid and promptly got stomped by Wake Forest in the first round. This is precisely the problem with the current system: mid-major conferences are not duly represented on the biggest stage in college basketball. In Vermont’s case in the 2007 season, Albany got a ridiculous thirteenth seed that was reserved for UVM and got thumped by Virginia 84-57.
The Ivy League remains the only conference that hands out a bid to the regular season winner of the conference (In 2002 the PAC-10 played their first conference tournament, making the Ivy League the only conference that has yet to give in to the newer system). If two Ivy League teams are tied at the end of the season they play one game for all the marbles. Brilliant. For example, a 12-2 Princeton team took on a 12-2 Penn team in 1996 and won 63-56. And then, you know, upset the defending national champions in the first round. The next season, Princeton went 14-0, got the bid and pushed Tony Gonzalez and the Cal Golden Bears to the limit before losing 55-50. Needless to say, conference games in the Ivy League are hard fought, do-or-die battles—players know it is their only chance for a bid. They can’t simply wait until the conference tournament to turn it up a notch and hope for a miracle. Why is the Ivy League so smart?
Having tournaments in the “power” conferences is equally shameful, perhaps even more so. Why does a 4-12 last place Georgia team even get the chance to secure an automatic bid into the tournament? This happened in 2008. They took bids away from smaller teams who deserved an at-large bid like Utah State, VCU, and UAB. How about the year Gerry McNamara ran a woeful Syracuse team through the four-day Big East tournament to lock up an automatic bid (garnering a more-than-undeserved 5 seed)? By the way: both these teams lost in the first round. I hope you aren’t surprised.
I understand that these tournaments generate a lot of hype, emotion, and made-for-TV moments. Trust me, if I had to choose between foreplay and championship week I would ask who is playing before making a choice; there are tons of reasons to defend the conference tournaments. I have become convinced that none of these reasons are good enough to keep deserving-teams out of the NCAA tournament. Conferences, as much as teams, deserve to be duly represented in the Big Dance. This will only happen when automatic bids are given to the winners of regular season conference play instead of the winner of the conference tournament.

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