"Money, it's gonna ruin sports." -- O.B. Keeler
Atlanta's great sports newsman was far ahead of his time when he supposedly uttered those words. Billion dollar television deals, owners who can ignore salary caps and throw around luxury tax penalties like it costs about as much as a warm can of PBR, and 'round the clock sports coverage that renders society incapable of watching a game without overanalyzing every dribble, tackle, and call.
Still, sometimes the money makes it better. 56 minutes of golf coverage every hour at Augusta could never happen without IBM, Coca-Cola, and the immense power that Augusta National Golf Club wields due to the money a network can make by airing the world's greatest golf tournament. As the major professional leagues have grown, companies like DirecTV have been able to strike deals to make every game accessible to every person in every corner of every city in this country, for a price of course. And last but not least, the latest TV deal between CBS, Turner, and the NCAA gives you the chance to watch every single NCAA Tournament game (if you have four TV/computer combinations available), or at the very least, the chance to watch the end of every game thanks to staggered starts.
And that's the one that matters right now. We're five days from Selection Sunday and a week from the First Four games in Dayton. We're an arm-length away from one of, if not the greatest events in sports. And we'll live and die with every minute of it. But it could be better.
And it would be better if conference tournaments didn't exist.
For major conferences, like the Big Ten and ACC, and even trickling down into some of the tweener conferences, like the Mountain West and AAC, it's not a big deal that if a team gets hot for a couple days, they get themselves into the big dance, because, generally, there are enough quality teams in those conferences that whoever wins was probably going to make the tournament anyway (though there are certainly exceptions). But for conferences like the Horizon League and the Patriot League, the conference tournament is the only avenue to the tournament.
And while that provides some intrigue during this particular week, and allows those conferences to make a little TV money from ESPN, it dilutes the product that sits at the pinnacle. At the time this article publishes, nine 1-seeds have lost in conference tournaments. And while it may be fun to watch the last-minute thrillers in winner-take-all scenarios, it's not fun for Belmont, Bucknell, High Point, Hofstra, IPFW, Monmouth, North Florida, Valparaiso, and Wichita State who were the best teams in their conferences all season and are now effectively done. Valpo might not get overlooked, Wichita State might get in based on their recent tournament success, and Monmouth might get a bid because they have wins that look better than they really are because of the name on the front of their opponent's jerseys. The other six? Thanks for playing.
It's terrible for those kids and coaches whose work throughout the entire season is undone in 40 minutes. But beyond that, it's terrible for fans. We love upsets. Cinderella stories are what make the tournament the tournament. Who is better equipped to provide an upset for us?
Belmont, who went 20-11 and beat Marquette and Valpo along the way, or Austin Peay who went 7-9 in the Ohio Valley and whose best win is a one-point victory over Belmont?
Holy Cross went 5-13 in the Patriot League and is one win away from the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wright State played the games of their seasons on Monday night to reach the Horizon League final. 26-5 (16-2) Valpo and 21-10 (13-5) Oakland, who've both shown they can hang with and beat quality competition? It's over, at least for Oakland and probably for Valpo.
Come Sunday, we'll have a number of more examples, but the point can be made now. Conference tournaments mean that we don't get the 68 best teams in the country. We don't even get 68 of the best 100 or 150 teams. Only one one-bid conference gets it right, the Ivy League. The best team in the Ivy League gets into the tournament every year.
And in the last 10 seasons?
|Year||Ivy League Champion||Tournament Wins||Eliminated By||Advanced To|
|2015||Harvard (13-seed)||None||North Carolina (67-65)||Round of 64|
|2014||Harvard (12-seed)||Cincinnati (61-57)||Michigan State (80-73)||Round of 32|
|2013||Harvard (14-seed)||New Mexico (68-62)||Arizona (74-51)||Round of 32|
|2012||Harvard (12-seed)||None||Vanderbilt (79-70)||Round of 64|
|2011||Princeton (13-seed)||None||Kentucky (59-57)||Round of 64|
|Kentucky (62-45)||Sweet 16|
|2009||Cornell (14-seed)||None||Missouri (78-59)||Round of 64|
|2008||Cornell (14-seed)||None||Stanford (77-53)||Round of 64|
|2007||Penn (14-seed)||None||Texas A&M (68-52)||Round of 64|
|2006||Penn (15-seed)||None||Texas (60-52)||
Round of 64
You might look at that chart and think "well, they only won four games in 10 years, and only three teams got wins, that's not impressive." If there were four massive upsets (5-12 or bigger) in every 10 first round games, you'd be going nuts. It would be the single greatest first round ever. And if you look deeper at the losses, you see that the Ivy League is extremely competitive in the first round matchups. And that's all we ask for on the first Thursday and Friday. Good games.
Now take a look at the America East's last 10 years and how its non-regular season champs faired in the NCAA Tournament:
Reg. Season Champ
Conference Tournament Champ
|Tournament Wins||Eliminated By||Round Advanced To|
|2015||Albany||Albany (14-seed)||None||Oklahoma (69-60)||Round of 64|
|2014||Vermont||Albany (16-seed)||None||Florida (67-55)||Round of 64|
|2013||Stony Brook||Albany (15-seed)||None||Duke (73-61)||Round of 64|
|2012||Stony Brook||Vermont (16-seed/Play In)||Lamar (71-59)||North Carolina (77-58)||Round of 64|
|2011||Vermont||Boston U (16-seed)||None||Kansas (72-53)||Round of 64|
|2010||Stony Brook||Vermont (16-seed)||None||Syracuse (79-56)||Round of 64|
|2009||Vermont||Binghamton (15-seed)||None||Duke (86-62)||Round of 64|
|2008||UMBC||UMBC (15-seed)||None||Georgetown (66-47||Round of 64|
|2007||Vermont||Albany (13-seed)||None||Virginia (84-57)||Round of 64|
|2006||Albany||Albany (16-seed)||None||Connecticut (72-59)||Round of 64|
Twice in 10 years did the regular season champion win the conference tournament and get a bid into the NCAA Tournament, and it's no coincidence that in those 10 years, the conference registered just one win in the tournament (kind of, in a play-in game). But what's more, those two Albany teams that won the regular season and conference tournament also played two of the most competitive games that the conference had in the tournament, even as 14 and 16 seeds.
Now, look at these blind resumes:
|Team A||Team B||Team C|
|Record||22-6 (13-1)||18-17 (7-9)||26-6 (16-2)|
|Adj. Off Ranking||91||163||114|
|Adj. Def Ranking||18||275||11|
|Best Win||Princeton (60)||Belmont (138)||Oregon State (59)|
|Worst Loss||Illinois (141)||Eastern Illinois (265)||Ball State (157)|
Teams A and C look like the kind of teams that could do some damage in the NCAA Tournament, perhaps winning a game, but at least giving somebody the business in the Round of 64. Team B looks like a powderpuff football team.
Here's two more before we tell you who these are:
|Team D||Team E|
|Record||26-6 (13-3)||26-4 (13-1)|
|Adj. Off Ranking||181||47|
|Adj. Def Ranking||7||34|
|Best Win||VCU (17)||Vermont (70)|
|Worst Loss||Duquesne (147)||Florida Atlantic (244)|
Team B I gave away earlier. It's Ohio Valley champion Austin Peay. Team A is Yale. Team C is Valpo. Again, which of these teams seem more primed for success in the Big Dance? The two that were the regular season conference champs.
Teams D and E? Two former regular season champions, from the same season, each of whom won an opening round game. Team D is 2014 Saint Louis, who got a 5-seed because they're in the A-10, and then went on to beat NC State in overtime in the Round of 64 before losing to Louisville. Team E is 2014 Harvard, who got a 12-seed because they're in the Ivy League, and then went on to beat Cincinnati before losing to Michigan State. The seeding difference between those two teams shows how important the conference you come from is. And that's why in the "bad" conferences, it's critical to win the tournament.
What both of those teams also show is that Yale and Valpo are right where mid-majors want to be to position themselves to make some noise in the tournament. But because of conference tournaments, Valpo may not get that shot. Belmont won't get that shot. Neither will IPFW, Hofstra, or North Florida.
How much better would it be to have Purdue and Valpo in a 5/12 game than Wisconsin-Green Bay getting whacked on the 15-seed line?
There are so many bad teams winning conference tournaments this year that if our Hoosiers reach the two or three line in the tournament, they're going to play a really, really bad basketball team. So, maybe you're fine with the conference tournaments. But if you care about the other 31 games next week on Thursday and Friday, perhaps you'll agree that conference tournaments are a terrible thing.
They're here to stay though, because the mid-major and low-major conferences finally get some revenue to share, and as one of my CQ cohorts noted, "they're fun as hell to watch." But just realize that by have a few good games and upsets this week, we're giving up a few good games and upsets next week. And for a sport that has nearly perfected its best product, college basketball is cheating itself from attaining absolute perfection in its tournament by attaching automatic bids to these three or four day battles. And it's cheating us out of upsets, instant classics, and shining moments.