This morning, I read an article by Mike Miller on NBCSports.com’s Beyond the Arc blog that stated that the regular season conference champions should be invited to the NCAA tournaments. It’s not saying the conference tournaments should go away, just that the winner should, in their words, “receive a trophy.”
…There’s a good reason to play hard in March. A nice, shiny, meaningless trophy.
The argument used isn’t necessarily a bad one: it’s harder to win a 16 or 18 game conference regular season championship than to win a 3 or 4 game conference championship. Agreed. And the current system does that that into account, ensuring the regular season championship at least a NIT bid.
This format isn’t exclusive to the hardwood either. College baseball uses a conference tournament, as does soccer, both of which determine who makes the NCAA tournament in small and often times “mid-major” conferences.
But if the conference tournaments were meaningless, or ceased to exist, many teams wouldn’t have a reason to play past the first month of the season. Let’s take this year’s Skyhawks for instance. On January 13th, the Skyhawks lost a 3-overtime game at Tennessee State, moving the Skyhawks to 5-14, but 0-7 in the OVC. Without a meaningful conference tournament, it’s season over. Other than playing the role of spoiler, the rest of the season would be essentially meaningless. Instead, the Skyhawks managed to go 6-5 down the stretch in the conference, land the 7th seed, and knock off 6th seeded Tennessee State in the opening round of the OVC Tournament.
I’m not going to go so far to say this wouldn’t have happened if the OVC tournament didn’t send a team to the NCAA Tournament. There’s no way to tell. But their season still meant something on January 14th. They were still fighting for something tangible. That wouldn’t have been true without the tournament on the horizon.
In Mike Miller’s article, he uses a statistic that the “best team” wins the NCAA tournament 27% of the time, and this is a reason the regular season champs should go the NCAA’s. But this stat is flawed; it doesn’t state the chances the 1-seed wins in conference tournaments, but rather the chance the top 1-seed wins the NCAA, a much larger field. And 27% is actually higher than the top seed in the NFL playoffs. The team with the best record wins the Super Bowl only 24% of the time in a 12-team field. As much as March Madness seems like a crap shoot at times, the better teams are upset less in the field of 60-something (68 now) than the NFL’s field of 12. He does state that top seed success is lower in the conference tournaments (right before he misstates that the top seed in the OVC won the conference tournament…) without any math to back that up.
At the beginning of March, over 300 teams were still eligible to win the National Title. You read that right. Over 300 teams were eligible for their conference tournament, meaning 300 teams had a theoretical chance to win a National Championship winning 10 or 11 straight games, a Herculean task, especially for many teams that don’t even have 10 or 11 wins. If the conference tournament’s didn’t matter, that number would be much lower, probably hovering around the 100 mark.
Does that mean a 6-22 team heading into March is going to win the National Title. No. But if they happen to beat a 22-6 team in March, why should that 22-6 team make the big dance?
Another argument given by Miller is that it would create a more competitive field. Really? Quite often, we find that “hot” teams in March prove to have deeper runs in the NCAA field than teams that struggle at the end of the year. In college basketball, momentum is hugely important, not just in games but on the season as the whole. A team that is able to win three straight in March may well put a stronger showing than a team that limps in.
I’m not trying to state that there’s not situations where “good” mid-major teams get left out because of a fluke game in the tournament. Teams have off nights. But the current system does rectify this some by allowing the regular season champion a bid to the NIT. At least under this system, the regular season champs are rewarded with a postseason bid. (And not to the CBI or that other postseason tournament, the CIT.)
In a world that includes the BCS, it’s nice to see one college sport has it right: an exciting season that concludes with an even more exciting month full of meaningful tournaments. March has always been my favorite month of the year, and following a conference like the OVC, it wouldn’t be the same without our own Nashville version of March Madness.