Two years ago, when the new Ohio Valley Conference tournament format was in it’s infancy, I was concerned about the double-bye. Does the advantages (rest, fewer games to win the tournament) outweigh the disadvantages. (Opponents momentum, playing ‘cold’)
So now that we’re a few years into the new format, I thought it was time to revisit the topic. Is the double-bye an overwhelming advantage, or subtle disadvantage to the two teams that earn it. And should the format exist at all?
First, we need to update the data from the previous article. There is still not a ton of data on double-byes, because so few conferences use them. The Big East was really the first to popularize the concept, and from 2006-2011, top seeds were 9-11 in opening round games. After the 2011 tournament, the Big East coaches voted to get rid of the double-bye format. The league, looking at their bottom line and the TV coverage their new format was received, smiled softly and decided the format would continue.
Has the past two years been any more kind? Much. In the past two seasons, the top-4 seeds receiving double-byes were 6-2. But there is one asterisk of sorts: In both those year, the Big East champion came from outside the top-4 seeds.
One problem with this comparison is the differences between the two conferences. The Big East is a much more balanced conference than the OVC traditionally. Unlike the Big East, the one or two seed has won the OVC Tournaments 11 of the past 12 years. And since the OVC Tournament featured eight teams back in 1997, the tournament championship has featured at least one of the top two seeds.
The OVC’s data is obviously very limited as well. In two years, the top-seeds are 3-1 in semifinal games, including a sweep last year. Both champions in the modern tournament era earned double-byes.
There’s also a twist in this year’s tournament. In the previous two years, before divisions, the top two records received the top two seeds. This year, given the addition of divisions and the almost comical imbalance between the East and West, the team with the fourth best record, Murray State, is the second seed. Assuming seeds hold, they’re play the team with the second best conference record, Eastern Kentucky, in the semifinals.
All things this year are new to Belmont head coach Rick Byrd as his team prepares to play it’s first conference tournament in the OVC. But the double-bye presents a special challenge, as the Atlantic Sun uses a more traditional format. “This is a new experience for us, the double-bye, the difference in the format in the tournament,” Byrd said. Talking about his practices this week, Byrd added, “We literally aren’t going to have a practice for a specific opponent, so you have to do some of that during the week. But today is going to be about us.”
Murray State head coach Steve Prohm has seen both sides of the double-bye coin, winning from the one-seed last year, but watching his team as an assistant fall in the semi-finals the year before. This year, though, Prohm is addressing a different concern: Should his 10-6 Racers be the two-seed over Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State, just for winning the West Division? “I think if they’re going to do East-West, if they’re going to do divisions, that’s the right thing to do,” Prohm said. “Or why are we in divisions?”
“It’s always going to change,” Prohm added. “Nine of the eleven [regular season champs] have come from the West side.”
Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer addressed the double-bye seeding as well. “That’s not an issue for right now, that’s an issue for the OVC Presidents at some later date,” Neubauer said. “Certainly the league has this setup, meaning double-byes for a purpose. That’s one of the most important issues facing the OVC, how to get the best teams, and the top RPI teams into the NCAA Tournament.”
Of course, there is a monetary aspect to be considered as well. Under the current format, the OVC keeps all the money from not only tickets but concessions for all four days, which wasn’t the case under the previous, shorter tournament.
In the end, there isn’t really an easy solution. Every setup will likely end with one party or another being upset. But there doesn’t seem to be much data to prove that the double-bye gives the top seeds any more of an advantage than previously. Upsets weren’t a dime-a-dozen in the older OVC Tournament format, so it’s hard to use that as a defense of the system. And if you’re just creating a system to get the best team in, do what the Ivy League does, and forego the conference tournament all together.
But it’s not just about getting the best in. It’s about the money, and press the tournament can provide. This format assures the top two teams are playing in the semi-finals, often one of the most profitable days of conference tournaments.
In the end, the format does create excitement, but until an OVC teams wins four straight, or even three straight games to win the tournament, it’s hard to see the double-bye being a major disadvantage in this conference, regardless of what it is in others.