Time To Revamp The Conference Basketball Tournament – From the Bird’s Nest
We crowned a national champion in basketball a couple of weeks ago. The Sun Belt Conference Tournament ended more than a month ago.
As a basketball fan who has been covering the Sun Belt for over 25 years, I've seen the evolution of the post season conference tournament.
It has not been a good evolution.
I've also watched what the NCAA Selection Committee has done the last few years as they continue to systematically reduce the chances of mid-majors getting at-large bids. This year it was the "quad" criteria, one that benefits the major conferences more than ever. Had it not been for upsets that relegated Rhode Island and Nevada to at-large status, the tournament would have had exactly one at-large bid: St Bonaventure, who was relegated to a First Four game. The message is clear. Mid majors aren't wanted.
The NCAA says they love it when someone plays the part of Cinderella. They're lying. In fact, I'm guessing there were plenty who cringed as Loyola continued its run all the way to the Final Four. When teams like the Ramblers have success, it points out the fallacy of how the committee does business. We all come to realize the Emperor has no clothes.
The reality is simple. If Loyola had failed to win the Missouri Valley Conference title, there would have been no story. No Cinderella. No Sister Jean.
That brings me back to conference tournaments. Everyone has one.
My question is, why?
The premise of post season tournaments is a good one. We all saw what the ACC Tournament did for college basketball. It made money. It added excitement. And, after the NCAA relaxed its rule about how many teams from one league could participate in the "Big Dance," it gave a league a chance to get an extra team into the tournament.
And, with that, conference tournaments became the norm.
And, for a time, it worked.
In 1993, New Orleans received an at large bid after winning the regular season title. Ditto Western Kentucky the following year. South Alabama and Middle Tennessee have also been awarded at large bids. But that isn't happening anymore. MTSU was shunned by the committee this year after an outstanding season. So was Saint Mary's.
In the Sun Belt, there are no at-large bids on the horizon. Not with the way the NCAA is doing business now. The Sun Belt tournament is one of the poorest attended in America. Basketball in the Deep South just isn't making it...and that means the conference tournament is losing money...a lot of money. And, no attendance means no excitement.
And, unless the regular season champion wins, there's little chance of the Sun Belt being any more than, say, the Northeast Conference when it comes to notoriety. The Sun Belt got some good publicity (and extra NCAA shares) when Georgia State and Little Rock won games in the tournament in back to back years.
It was the above that led me to approach Karl Benson, the Commissioner of the Sun Belt, to give him a heads up that I would be writing an opinion piece about the future of the tournament. And, I told him, my recommendation would be to do away with the tournament entirely.
The Commissioner did not like that idea.
He spoke of the tournament allowing student-athletes to enjoy the postseason experience. At first I scoffed at that statement. But, as the tournament progressed, I understood what he was talking about. Despite horrible attendance, there was a sense of urgency on the court for both the men and women. There was a little more intensity, a little more passion. Now, I'm still not sure the experience outweighs the financial hit but I at least got the point Benson was making.
I modified my stance.
I suggested to him the league should award the automatic bid to the regular season champion. Give the tournament winner a nice trophy. And, if a deal could be worked out to send the tournament winner to the NIT, that would be great as well. The student-athletes would still get their postseason experience and the league would be putting its best foot forward. And, it would mean the regular season would be more important than three (or four) days in March.
Louisiana coach Bob Marlin made that "it all comes down to three days in March" several years ago and that didn't sit well with some of the Cajuns' fan base. But Marlin was right. And, that got shown to the Cajun faithful in a cruel way last month. It DOES come down to three days in March. But it shouldn't.
And, the fallacy of making it all about the postseason tournament was magnified once the tournament ended when Scott Cross was fired as the head coach at UTA.
Cross won games. He won a regular season title. He navigated the Mavericks through not one, but two conference realignments. He won 27 games in a season. But for Athletic Director Jim Baker, that wasn't good enough. You see, Baker had some dancing shoes in his closet he didn't get to wear.
Baker made it clear he wanted his school in the NCAA tournament. He wanted the school to be the next Gonzaga...the next Loyola. (He didn't say whether he was willing to fund his program the way those schools do.) Then Baker went on to say if UTA had won the tournament in either of the last two seasons, Cross would still have a job.
And that's when I realized the reality of the situation.
It does come down to three days in March. And Scott Cross was fired, not because he wasn't winning. Cross was fired because he lost ONE game. One. To Texas State in the Sun Belt semifinals in 2017. UTA had won the regular season title. It had gone on the road and knocked off Saint Mary's. But there was a bad day at the tournament that cost a very good Mavericks' team a chance not only to go to the NCAA tournament, but perhaps win once they got there.
Baker's actions sent a terrible message. You can win non conference games against good competition. You can steamroll the competition in the league during the regular season. But lose one game at the conference tournament and your job is in jeopardy.
It may work out for UTA. Baker has "his guy" in Texas Tech assistant Chris Ogden. Burke said there would be a nationwide search. Ogden was mentioned the very day Cross was fired and got the job, lending credence to the slogan that Texas is "a whole other country."
But whether it works out or not, it was wrong. And, there's only one way to keep it from happening again. That's to reward greatness during the regular season and quit making this about three days in March. You know that slogan "every game counts" that's used by college football.
It's time for the Sun Belt to apply that to basketball.