At halftime of Monday’s Southern Conference Tournament title game, an hour or so before another top-seed in a one-bid league would lose, ESPN analyst Jay Williams expressed his displeasure with the way small conferences render their regular seasons pointless by awarding their NCAA Tournament automatic bids to the to the champions of single-elimination events.
“The conference tournaments are very vexing to me,” Williams said. “[They’re] cash-grabbing attempts by the conferences to artificially inflate the excitement around college basketball. What you’re saying to me is that the regular season doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You’re saying it all comes down to a three-day tournament.”
Williams is exactly right, of course.
Conference tournaments -- especially the ones connected to traditional one-bid leagues -- are indeed little more than cash-grabs designed to create television exposure and excitement at the expense of the regular season. The losers are the teams that spend months proving they’re the best in their leagues only to be upset in conference tournaments and left with nothing that matters.
Belmont is this season’s best example.
The Bruins finished at least five games ahead of every other school in the Ohio Valley Conference. But they lost their OVC Tournament opener to a Jacksonville State team they’d already beaten twice by double-digits. So now they’re NIT-bound.
Such is life for schools in one-bid leagues.
The system is flawed to its core.
But guess what?
Conference tournaments aren’t going away for precisely the reasons Williams noted -- because they create television exposure and excitement that otherwise wouldn’t exist ... plus money. And there’s nothing conference commissioners like more than money. So if you think traditional one-bid leagues are going to start giving their automatic bids to their regular-season champs, think again. Conference tournaments are here to stay. And conference tournaments without the prize of automatic bids wouldn’t be interesting. TV networks wouldn’t be able to promote them the way they promote them now. Which means TV networks wouldn’t pay for them what they pay for them now. Which brings us back to ... money.
(Note: Everything in college athletics always comes down to money.)
So let’s stop wishing league tournaments away.
Let’s instead try to fix them.
And I have an idea.
First, let’s agree conference tournaments have to exist and that the winners of them have to receive automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. There’s just no getting around those two things. And let’s acknowledge that the problem for traditional one-bid leagues is that the current system mostly does render the regular season useless and often leads to upsets that cause inferior teams to make the NCAA Tournament at the expense of superior teams.
So the question is this: How do you keep league tournaments played for automatic bids but provide serious advantages to the No. 1 seeds in a way that rewards them for regular-season accomplishments?
Here’s how: If you’re a traditional one-bid league, you create a tournament that gives a bye all the way to the championship game for your No. 1 seed. In other words, everybody else in the league is playing for the right to play the No. 1 seed in the title game. So, for example, in the case of the OVC, my plan would’ve had Belmont penciled into the OVC Tournament title game and simply waiting to play one game against a to-be-determined opponent to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
And Belmont would’ve started that game ahead 10-0.
That’s my additional twist.
Not only would securing a No. 1 seed automatically propel schools in traditional one-bid leagues to the title games of their league tournaments, it would also give them a 10-0 lead to start their title games. And, yes, I know this might sound radical to some. But doesn’t it accomplish everything we’re trying to accomplish?
My plan keeps conference tournaments that create revenue and excitement thanks to the prize of an automatic bid, but it does so while providing real advantages to No. 1 seeds. As a result, the regular season would no longer be meaningless. Getting the No. 1 seed would matter a lot. It would put you in a great position to advance to the NCAA Tournament. But everybody else in the league would still have a puncher’s chance at the automatic bid, which is what makes Championship Week interesting.
And that 10-0 lead to start the title game?
What it would do is, obviously, make an upset less likely, which would in turn make it more likely that a league’s best team would represent it in the NCAA Tournament. But, again, an upset would still be possible. My plan would still allow dreamers to dream. And if you end up as a No. 1 seed who couldn’t hold a 10-point lead against an inferior team in the title game, well, that’s on you. We tried our best to set you up for success. You blew it. Live with it.
Would this format create some issues?
The most notable one is that fans of your best team would have no real reason to show up for your league tournament until the final day, and I realize that’s not ideal. But it’s better than rendering your regular season mostly meaningless, putting your best team at serious risk and watching them exit early.
The goal should be to try to avoid that.
My plan better avoids that.
But everybody still has a chance. And everybody still gets exposure.
And everybody still makes money.
So everybody wins.