How to Fix Conference Tournaments

Let me just start by saying that the title of this post may be a little misleading, as I do not think the conference tournaments need fixing. I very much enjoy the current set-up, with leagues handing their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to the winner of their conference tournaments.

Does that ultimately result in a few regular season champions being left heading to the, for all intents and purposes, meaningless NIT? Yes, it does. Do I feel somewhat bad for teams like Belmont and Monmouth, who dominated their league competition during the regular season, only to slip-up in the tournament and miss out on a trip to the Big Dance? I genuinely do.

But on the other hand, if your team is that good, and that dominant, then I am of the belief that you should be able to win the games when they matter the most. Especially when some conferences give their regular season champs advantages in their conference tournaments. Belmont got a bye to the semifinals. All they needed to do was win two games against teams that they had already beaten at least once this season. They couldn’t get the job done.

belmont
Rick Byrd’s Belmont Bruins dominated the OVC all season long, but they couldn’t get the job done when it counted the most (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The system has its flaws, I can admit that. Despite the loss, Belmont is the team that would have best represented the Ohio Valley Conference in the NCAA Tournament this season. That is not a knock on Jacksonville State, the eventual champion, but more praising how good Belmont was this season. This is just one example, and we get at least one just about every season.

Many complain that the regular season is basically meaningless in the current set-up. I don’t feel that way, but I understand the viewpoint. Another widespread complaint is that the conference tournaments are just a money grab. In a sense, yeah, that’s exactly what they are, but you can’t blame conferences for doing something that will get them more money. That’s the world we live in, get used to it.

The reason I do not think the system needs to be changed is that it can create magical moments and unbelievable excitement. Championship Week is must-see TV for any college basketball fan. I spend most of this week in front of televisions, laptops, tablets and cellphones, watching multiple conference tournament games.

Just last night, at 7:00 pm, I had the Horizon League championship game on my TV, the NEC title game on my tablet and an ACC first round game between Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh on my laptop, watching all three simultaneously. Why? Because these games were all win and advance, lose and go home, and I didn’t want to miss anything amazing. And that is what we get this time of year. Amazing moments. Go on YouTube and type “March Madness” into the search bar. There is no end to the amount of incredible games and shots that have occurred during March throughout the last 50 years, and even prior to that.

For those reasons and more, I think “March Madness” is fine just the way it is. Is it perfect? Not by any stretch, but it is extremely exciting, and it is a wonderful time for basketball fans. Championship Week is the perfect lead-in to the NCAA Tournament, with teams fighting and clawing their way towards the chance to play in the Big Dance.

champ week
Championship Week is massive for ESPN and other networks every season, meaning it’s not going anywhere fast (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Despite how I feel about it, many basketball people are clamoring for a change. ESPN’s Jay Williams said two nights ago that he hates conference championship tournaments because they devalue the regular season. His word choice might not have been the best (I doubt he actually hates these games), but I see his point.

Some have given their ideas for how to fix the system. CBS’s Gary Parrish thinks that one-bid conferences should give their regular season champs a bye to the championship game, so that winning the regular season means something great, but it still gives the other teams a shot to make it to the NCAA Tournament. I would not be completely against that proposal. He also said that the 1-seeds should be given a 10-0 lead to start off the championship games. That I’m not so crazy about.

The overwhelming problem that basketball people have with the current system is that it renders the regular season somewhat meaningless. I don’t feel that way completely, but I see what they are getting at. I do not think we need to change anything, but since a lot of people do, I have an idea that I believe would be good for just about everybody involved. Regular season champs in one-bid leagues, tournament champs in one-bid leagues, Bubble teams and conference figureheads would all benefit from my idea. There are a lot of people who would be opposed to my idea, for reasons that I definitely recognize, but you can’t make everyone happy. My idea, is to increase the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament from 68 to 96.

This has been discussed as a possibility in the past, recently in years where the Bubble seems to be strong, and teams that deserve to make it to the NCAA Tournament are left out. Talk of increasing the number of teams in the Big Dance has not been as prevalent in the last few seasons, but I think it is the best way to make the regular season meaningful while maintaining the luster and excitement that surrounds Championship Week. Here is how this whole plan would work:

The regular season champions in each of the 32 Division-I conferences would receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This solves the issue of the regular season not meaning very much. Some people wish that the conferences would do it this way in the current setup, but there is just too much money in conference tournaments for this to happen. Remember, money will always come first.

By increasing the number of teams in the NCAA’s to 96, you can give an auto-bid to the regular season champs AND the conference tournament champs. I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen an idea like this discussed. It certainly may be out there somewhere on the interwebs, but I have not seen it. This way, a 1-seed can lose in the conference tournament and still make it to the NCAA Tournament by way of having the best record in the regular season.

Now, I realize there are a few kinks in this plan that would need some figuring out. For example, what happens when there’s a tie at the top of the conference, like in the SoCon this year, where UNC Greensboro, Furman and East Tennessee State all finished with a 14-4 record in league play. My plan would be to leave it up to the conferences. The conferences are not required to give their automatic bid to the team that wins their postseason tournament. They choose to do so. The Ivy League has given the regular season champ the auto-bid every year until this season, finally joining the postseason tournament party. Let the leagues decide how to deal with a tiebreaker. In the case of a two-way tie, head-to head could be used, or best overall record. Or you could even have a playoff game prior to the conference tournament, with the winner earning the regular season championship. There’s another opportunity for more money right there!

etsu
East Tennessee State entered the SoCon Tournament as the 3-seed despite having just as many conference wins as Furman and UNC Greensboro. They won when it counted though (Photo courtesy of TriCitiesSports.com)

Three-way ties could be handled similarly. Do a round-robin tournament between the three teams, with a point-differential system being used in the case of each team winning one game. It could be similar to how soccer uses aggregate scoring. There are many ways this could be done, this is just one example.

Another pitfall would be if the regular season champion also wins the conference tournament. What would happen then? Some would argue that the regular season champion would have no reason to even play in the conference tournament since they already earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a fair assessment, and again, I believe you could leave it up to the conferences to decide how they want to handle it. Maybe you give the regular season champion the option of playing in the conference tournament. If they would choose not to, then you have the other teams in the league battling for one more spot in the Big Dance.

But if the regular season champion chooses to play in the conference tournament and wins it, I have two potential ideas. The first would be for the team that reached the championship game and lost to be given the league’s second auto-bid. The problem with this would be the conference championship game would then be pretty meaningless if both teams are going to advance to the NCAA’s no matter who wins. I could see losing viewers if that were the case.

The other possibility would be for that league’s second auto-bid to become an extra at-large bid. There are flaws with this as well, as the conference, in all likelihood, would lose the chance to send two teams to the Tournament, but a more deserving team would probably end up making it in this scenario.

An NCAA Tournament with 96 teams would be set up mostly the same, with the First Four games in Dayton becoming the First Round, with the top eight seeds in each region getting a bye to the Second Round. Each region would now have 24 teams. The 16-seed would play the 17-seed with the winner facing the 1-seed in the Second Round. The 9-seed would face the 24-seed with the winner facing the 8-seed in the Second Round. You could set it up as simply as that, resulting with an extra two days of 16 games each. Hey, that’s more money (see what I’m getting at).

96teambracket
Could this be the future look of the NCAA Tournament bracket? It would solve a lot of problems people have with the current setup (Photo courtesy of AllKyHoops.com)

You could also re-seed after the First Round, allowing the 1-seed to play the lowest remaining seed in their region. So if the 24-seed would upset the 9-seed, they would automatically face the 1-seed in the Second Round, and then the Tournament would play out just like it does now from there on out. I personally just don’t see the NCAA balking at the idea of adding 32 more games to the Tournament when they consider the potential increase in revenue.

Let me reiterate, I am totally fine with the set-up the way it is right now. With the conference tournament champions going to the Big Dance, and 68 teams in total making it to the Tournament. But if so many people have a problem with it, and change needs to be made, I think expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams would be the best way to make as many people happy as possible. You can’t make everyone happy, but I can’t figure out who wouldn’t be happy with this.

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