Posted March 11, 2013

Small-Conference Entertainment Complex claims Middle Tennessee State, Stony Brook

America East, Sun Belt Conference
Kermit Davis and MTSU (19-1 in the regular season) won't be dancing when NCAA brackets are announced. (USA Today Sports)

Kermit Davis and MTSU (19-1 in the regular season) won’t be dancing when NCAA brackets are announced. (USA Today Sports)

To get the biases of this commentary out of the way up front, I am a Penn grad reared on a league that doesn’t hold a conference tournament, preferring the quaint idea of actually sending its best team each year to the NCAA tournament. In addition, my father is employed at Stony Brook. There, everything’s on the table. Now we can begin.

What happened today to Middle Tennessee State and Stony Brook is ridiculous. I can’t make it any clearer than that.

The Blue Raiders won the Sun Belt’s full double round-robin 20-game regular-season schedule by five games. Five! In an 11-team league! They went 19-1, with the only loss coming in overtime on the road. Their reward for that dominance? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They had to play a quarterfinal game against an 8-seed. They didn’t get homecourt advantage in any round, as the event is held in Hot Springs, Ark. They had utterly destroyed a league over a couple of months, and the powers that be thought it would be a great idea to see if they could win three more games. And they couldn’t.

I’m not sure that lunacy is better or worse than the America East’s setup, where the quarterfinals and semifinals are held at one location before the higher seed hosts the title game. For the second time in four seasons, Stony Brook didn’t even get a chance to utilize the homecourt advantage it earned through its regular-season play, losing before the final. This time around, it was even worse, as the Seawolves actually had a road game against 4-seed Albany, the site host.

My question to these and other one-bid leagues around the land: WHAT ARE YOU DOING??

The conference tournament argument is incredibly circular in logic to begin with. While it’s much fairer to have leagues set up tournaments like the West Coast Conference, which gives byes into the semifinals for its top two seeds, if you need to rig a tournament to that degree to try to have the best team(s) win it more often, why bother? Just send your best team. I understand in a world of unbalanced league schedules that this is often in dispute, but not always. And if it is, fine, let’s have a tournament system just for those teams arguably in the mix. This isn’t CYO. Not everyone deserves a second chance. But if you have to invite everyone, the WCC setup, which actually rewards regular-season performance, is much preferred to many other constructs.

The best arguments for small-conference tournaments: 1) You get a game on national TV, 2) It’s exciting to have a year-end event where everyone has a chance, and 3) You could steal an extra bid. In my opinion, the first two of those reasons are really stupid. You know how you get the most attention? Win games in the NCAAs. Cornell got plenty of love in 2010 when it blasted Temple and Wisconsin and played Kentucky mostly tough in the Sweet 16. As for the third one, how often does that even happen in the bottom 15 conferences? It’s a pipe dream. You’re not getting an at-large.

The best way to put your league in position to win NCAA games is to send your best team. When your need to satisfy an Entertainment Complex supersedes what’s best for your league in the long run, you’re doing it wrong. Middle Tennessee State and Stony Brook were toppled by it Sunday evening, but there’s a long list of victims and no fix in sight.

8 comments
ArthurHoki
ArthurHoki

Some posters mention not being able to handle the NCAA tourney b/c a team can't win their own conference tourney. That line of thinking is faulty. In the case of MTS in the article, how hard is it to beat a team for possibly the third time in a season? A team coached by a staff you meet year in year out. Compare that situation to the big dance where you may meet a mid level team from a major conference you've never met and who probably underestimates your team's ability. I fully agree with the article. The the teams representing the one bid conferences should not be asked to win as many games as possible to not get a rock bottom seed, then be forced to win out a tourney that can eliminate their chances. It is a total disservice to the kids playing and the coaches who lead them. Things won't change b/c the powers that be who chirp about the quaint phrase " student athlete" care more about $$. 

Huffy1680
Huffy1680

Glad the WCC does it right give the top 2 a bye to the semis and all but make sure your best two are playing for the auto bid or make a team really earn it to get there.

joestrummerlives
joestrummerlives

Conference tournaments are proof that the celebrated, wholesome institution that is college basketball is not so far removed from the heartless, corporate behemoth that is college football: Neither can resist a cash-grab. As far as I am concerned, from a fan's perspective, a great conference tournament is the very best that sports has to offer; better than the Super Bowl (er, sorry, I meant BIG GAME. I am not an official sponsor), better than the NCAA Tourney, better than the NBA Finals, better than ANYTHING. The real shame in the collapse of the Big East is the great atmosphere that you got at MSG for the better part of a full week, with games all day, and fan-bases with huge passions for their schools, and long traditions of hating the opposition, descending upon NYC to win a great conference crown. If anything, the NCAA tourney is amateur hour, a pay day for the sponsors. Sure, every program wants to be National Champion, but to win a major conference tournament, over the teams that you know and hate, THAT is a successful season.

So, on the one hand, conference tournaments are validation and offer true BRAGGING RIGHTS. But, on the other hand, they can be unfair, like when the best team from a small, 1-bid conference loses, and there is certain "kiss your sister" aspect of a team that has more to lose than it gains from the conference tourney. Case in point, as a Cincy grad, I remember that fateful C-USA opening round game when the Bearcats, who had been the legitimate nation's No. 1 all year, lost Kenyon Martin to a broken fibula. The Bearcats were by far the best team in the conference, and perhaps the best in the nation. Winning the C-USA tournament would have done nothing for their NCAA profile. Yet, they had to play in the tournament, and lost Kenyon Martin, then proceeded to lose the game, a no. 1 seed, and exited the NCAA tourney in the second round. That said, you can't tell me that the Big 10 Tourney this year will not mean something to whichever school between Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, etc wins. Each of those teams has reason to think they are the best, and you can bet that they all want to prove it over the other.

Yes, conference tournaments carry a whole slew of inequities and cruel twists of fate. But, on aggregate, they also showcase what is truly great about college sports, in ways that you cannot find elsewhere in sports.

RedbirdCraig
RedbirdCraig

Andy, I understand what you're saying but you're tilting at windmills. The idea of a conference giving up their tourney is like asking the networks to bring "I Love Lucy" back. It's quaint. Besides, if these teams can't handle their own crappy conference in a tournament setting what are the chances they'd be able to handle Syracuse or Michigan State?

geoAZ
geoAZ

Permit me to take another view. I believe the most significant reason for post-season tournaments is the money. One must presume that in conferences where money is tight, Patriot and MAAC, for example, these tournaments must add something to the coffers.Second is recruiting. While these "one in" conferences don't compete for every recruit, they do offer opportunities to players just below the "NBA potential" level and the TV opportunity,plus tournament in a "big arena" are clearly draws. Lastly, one could argue, if both Stony brook and MTSU were unable to win a local tournament how would they have beaten the big dogs and wouldn't the "hotter" team have a better chance ???  

mw5030
mw5030

This generally makes a lot of sense, however, if the likelihood of winning games in the NCAA's is the goal, I'm not sure that best overall regular-season conference record is the be-all, end-all.  For example, both of the Patriot League teams that sprang huge first round upsets fairly recently (Lehigh last year and Bucknell in '05) came from the 2-seed in the conference tourney to do it.  I think, if I'm a small conference commissioner, I would prefer to have my representative be, in this order: (i) the team with the highest ceiling (ii) the team that got hot in the final 2 weeks, and then (iii) that won the  regular season.  Sometimes, obviously, the same team satisfies multiple criteria.

Conference tourneys can play a role to determine if the regular season champ satisfies all the criteria.  I agree that it's silly to think FIU or WKU (or anyone) would be a better Sun Belt rep than Middle Tennessee, however, I'm also pretty sure that Iona has a better shot at pulling an upset for the MAAC than Niagara would have and that the MEAC will be best served to win a game if NC Central goes through instead of Norfolk State.

The best compromise to me would be to allow the size of the conference tourney field to vary.  Take everybody within 3 games of the regular season leader, whether that be zero teams or 10 team.  There would be no tourney in the Belt and we could skip straight to Weber/Montana in the Big Sky and Davidson/Charleston in the SoCon while leagues like the NEC and MAAC could sort out legitimate logjams.  You'd have 3 or 4 teams in most leagues.

MattBugaj
MattBugaj

@RedbirdCraig Easy, you handle Syracuse by letting them shoot 3's. You don't have to guard their post players, so just hang around the perimeter, get a hand up, and let them shoot threes.