Time to Change the Sun Belt Tournament Format – From the Bird’s Nest
On Sunday, the NCAA will release their men’s basketballl tournament bracket. And, millions across the country will be watching.
Many, if not most, won’t know a Wagner from a Quinnipiac. But they’ll pay attention.
And, for the third year in a row, they’ll think “Wow, the Sun Belt must be a bad league.”
Well, the Sun Belt isn’t exactly a power league. While they’re still considered a mid-major, there’s no question the league has been watered down in men’s basketball because that sport hasn’t been considered at all when looking at expansion.
Football drives the bus and in the Sun Belt, the other sports are barely passengers.
For the third straight year, a low seeded team is the champion. And, for the third straight year, that team isn’t going to be seeded very well in the NCAA tournament.
Two years ago, it was Arkansas-LIttle Rock, the defacto #8 seed (5W) who got in with a 19-16 record. They were in an opening round game in Dayton. Some of you call it the “play in” game.
Last year, it was Western Kentucky. Saddled with a mid-season coaching change, the Hilltoppers, as the #7 seed, made a most unlikely run through the tournament and finished 15-18. Their reward. A trip to Dayton.
And, again this year it’s WKU. The #6 seed, the ‘Toppers defeated Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Arkansas State and FIU to get to the dance for a second straight season.
And, when the brackets are revealed, the Hilltoppers will once again be a 16 seed. No “play in” this time. They might even rise to a 15, depending on how other tournaments shake out.
It’s the third straight season the regular season champion doesn’t reach the championship game. Two years ago Florida Atlantic was out in the quarterfinals. Ditto Middle Tennessee last year.
This year, the Blue Raiders were the prohibitive favorites. And, amazingly, the boys from the ‘boro were ousted by FIU in the semifinals. Many had Middle as high as a number 11 projected seed in the NCAA. And, while Kermit Davis’ team is still holding out hope for an at-large bid, I frankly don’t think they’re going to get one.
And that means, once again, the Sun Belt has no chance to make any noise in the big dance.
There are people every year that suggest conference tournaments, especially for the one bid leagues, be done away with and the regular season champion should get the bid. I don’t think I agree with that. Every team has a chance to be playing for something at the end of the season and that’s good.
But the Sun Belt needs to do a better job of protecting the #1 seed. Doing that won’t guarantee the champion wins. It just guarantees fewer land mines along the way.
With the tournament moving to New Orleans next season and only one court available, the odds state only the top eight teams will make the tournament next year. Assuming that’s the case, it would do the Sun Belt well to look at an alternate format.
I personally, in an eight team tournament, really like the model the Southland Conference is now using: On the first day, the four lowest seeded teams (5 vs. 8, 6 vs. 7) play first round games, while the top four teams get byes. The winners of the first round games advance to the second round, where the 5/8 winner gets to play the #4 seed, while the 6/7 winner plays the #3 seed.
Those winners advance to the semi finals where the two top seeds await the survivors. That means the two top seeds would only need to win two games to win the title. Again, it’s not perfect, but at least there’s a real reward for doing well during the regular season.
Conference tournaments are all about upsets, Cinderellas, storylines and the like. And, that’s good. And, it still has a chance to happen.
But in the Sun Belt Conference and leagues like them, it’s important to put the best foot forward. And, a new format gives that the best chance of happening.