We can have the argument another day whether Murray State is really in a class of their own this season, but for the purposes of this argument, since the Racers are 23-0, and no other OVC team is better than 16-9, let’s assume that they are. Tonight’s game features a battle between two teams who, with a solid run down the stretch, are still in a good position to get into the 4th seed, (especially Morehead State) and earn a bye at the OVC Tournament.
But how important is that bye anyway?
Last year, you may remember, both teams winning in the first round were absolutely throttled in the 2nd, but both of the first round winners were the underdogs according to seeding. And the double-bye didn’t prove so important for Murray State, who was a one-and-done, but it was the other team with a double-bye, Morehead State, that won the tournament.
But things in the conference are much different this year. There was a tight race last year, but this year, the 1 seed is in a position to win the OVC regular season title this week, and the race just to get into the tournament was tighter, and not in a good way. Looking at the 2-8 positions in the current standings, you can reasonably see any team beating any other team.
So the question really becomes: which is more important – avoiding an extra “winnable” game (assuming all games between teams 2-8 are “winnable”) or avoiding the Racers for another round, and hoping that Murray has another one-and-done year.
As I did last year when talking about the importance of the double-bye, I go to another conference with a double-bye in their conference tournament for assistance, the Big East. And this year more than ever, the OVC may be more comparable. I’m not talking about direct level of play, but simply the notion that most any team can beat almost any other team.
The biggest argument against that extra game is that winning 4 games in 4 days is challenging. Which it’s supposed to be. That’s the point. But last year, UConn was the 9th seed in the Big East tournament, winning 5 games in 5 days. But of course, they were also the eventual National Champions, and no OVC team is going to be that talented. In that same Big East tournament, only the 1-seed, Pitt, lost as the double-bye, meaning 3 of the 4 double-bye recipients won their first game.
So we go back to 2010, where 8th seeded Georgetown, who only got a single bye, won 3-games in 4-days to make the tournament final, losing to 3-seeded West Virginia. That year, West Virginia was the only recipient of the double-bye to win their first game.
We’ll go back one more year. The first 2 rounds were almost perfect by the seeds, meaning the top 8-ranked teams were all in the quarterfinals. Two double-bye teams on one half of the bracket won, the two on the other side lost. That meant that one of the teams that played on the 2nd day had to make the finals, winning 3 games in 3 days to get there. They lost the 4th game, to Louisville.
So what have we learned from this looking back, and from the OVC’s only season in a similar format? First, winning 4-games in 4-days might not be such an impossible task. In the last 3 years, at least one Big East team won at least 3 games in 3 days. I think that’s significant because once you get to that 4th game in the OVC tournament, you’ll be automatically playing a team that’s on their 2nd game in as many days, meaning some fatigue will be a factor for both teams, although obviously more so for the team playing in their 4th game.
The other thing is that teams with the double-bye only have about a 50% win rate, which is lower than most people expect. They’re the favorite, they’re the fresher team, yet it doesn’t seem to provide any tangible advantage. In fact, many sportswriters have made the point over the years that a team with a bye is actually at a disadvantage.
The Wild Card is the assumption I made you make to even have this argument: is Murray State really a step above the completion. I absolutely think so, because they wouldn’t still have a 0 in their loss column if they weren’t. If your team had as big of a target as the Racers have, well they’d almost assuredly have more losses than they do already. Where as the standard win percentage for teams with a double-bye might not be great, I’d put the Racers chances much better than average of making it out of the semifinals unscathed.
So, to answer the question, in this year’s tournament, which would I rather be? I’d take the bye. There’s no assurance if you’re the 6-seed, that the Racers will get knocked off.
You may be wondering “what about the 5 seed?” If you think about it, the 5 seed might be the worst possible seed to have in this entire tournament, outside the 8 seed. Not only must you win 4-games in 4-days, you MUST beat the Racers in the semifinals. It’s the worst of both worlds.
There are a few more variables I feel are important to mention to this entire discussion. One reason that teams with the double-bye in the Big East tournament might lose that first game is that while they don’t need a win (as they’re a lock for the NCAA tournament) the team they’re playing (especially in the 7, 8, 9 range) might need it badly. If the Racers still have a 0 in the loss column, they’re a lock for the tournament. Likely a lock also if that have just one loss. But if they have 2 or more losses come tournament time, they’ll feel like they need to win the OVC tournament just like the rest of the league to make the NCAA’s, which would make them an even tougher out.
Also there’s the issue of pressure. Every win mounts more pressure on the Racers to continue doing so. If they’re undefeated come tournament time, is that when the pressure gets to them? If they lose before the tournament, is the pressure off, making them even better? Just something else to think about.
Jacksonville State (10-16, 5-7) at Morehead State (13-12, 6-5), 6:00 p.m. CST
Morehead coming off an ugly win against EIU, but much better at home. Jacksonville State has suddenly lost the ability to defend, but found the ability to shoot. Look for the Eagles to try and slow the game to a crawl, which might actually benefit the Gamecocks.
[Last Night’s Scores]
Mid-Continent 41, Eastern Kentucky 59
Yay. You won against Mid-Continent by 18. You did hit some 3’s which is great. But did you make it through the game without flipping anybody off?