There are 30 conferences that award automatic bids to their tournament champions, a trend that, this year more than ever, seems to be failing the low majors.
A handful of conferences do not need to worry about who wins their conference tournament, they will always have teams that are good enough to dance on their own, and a conference regular season champion going down could actually lead to more bids for the league. Most years, those conferences are the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Pac-12 (Minus last year), SEC, and WCC.
That group has 11 members, leaving 19 conferences that, most years, will not have an at large bid. If their regular season champion were to lose in the tournament, that team would not dance. This has led to conferences coming up with the least conventional Brackets possible, with top seeds auto advancing to the final 4 while bottom seeds are forced to play 4 or 5 games. Some conference tournaments are hosted by the regular season champions to add another advantage. Despite these advantages, year after year top teams in these smaller conferences are defeated and left out of March.
This year is turning out to be one of the worst years for small conference champions. Below are regular season champions that have lost in their conference tournaments:
American East: Stony Brook (24-7, 14-2)
Atlantic Sun: Mercer (23-11, 14-4)
Big South: Charleston Southern (19-12, 12-4)
Colonial: Northeastern (20-12, 14-4)
MAAC: Niagara (19-13, 13-5)
MEAC: Norfolk State (21-11, 16-0)
Northeastern: Robert Morris (23-10, 14-4)
Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee State (28-5, 19-1)
WAC: Louisiana Tech (26-6, 16-2), DENVER (21-9, 16-2)
Of the 19 conferences that will not get an at large berth in most instances (Middle Tennessee State could break through this year, as Iona did last year), 9 have lost their conference champions. 5 are still playing, so this number could grow. The only 5 #1 seeds so far to win are Bucknell, Belmont, Valpo, South Dakota State, and Davidson.
While it seems exciting to watch these cinderella stories, it actually does considerable damage to the NCAA tournament. A non regular season conference champion will inevitably given a lower seed in the actual tournament than the top team in that conference would have received. A team like Middle Tennessee state could have been a 12 or 13 seed. Western Kentucky will be either a 15 seed or a 16 seed instead. If WKU is awarded a 16 seed rather than MTSU’s 12, that means a 16 seed becomes a 15 seed, a 15 becomes a 14, and so on. If you are a fan of upsets, you want your lower seeds to be as good as possible, not a 16 seed that was bumped up a line due to circumstances in another conference.
Now due to conference RPI, the above scenario won’t happen for all 9 conference champions. That does not, however, make it any less of a big deal. The simple logic of your best team gives you the best chance to win is thrown out the window when you send the team that got hot in March instead of the team that did it all year long.
Conferences have to be sick over this. They do not have to award their bid to their conference champion, but they do anyway. The Sun Belt is leaving the fate of a team that is good enough to make it to the Sweet 16 in the hands of a selection committee. The WAC lost a team that, as of 2 weeks ago, was 26-3, in its first game. The MEAC lost its top 4 seeds in its quarterfinals. The MAC has to be worried about Akron, and the Southland about Stephen F. Austin.
It may be exciting now, but an NCAA Tournament with the teams listed above would be much better than the one we are going to get.
Here is how we can fix this. Currently, conference regular season champions that do not make the NCAA tournament are guaranteed a spot in the 32 team NIT. (Thats right, 9 of the 32 NIT spots are spoken for.) I think we should change the rule to state that the regular season champion will be the recipient of the auto-bid, while the conference tournament champion will be offered a spot in the NIT if not selected. The NIT is a crapshoot as it is. Just off the top of my head, I would guess 6 of the 16 first round games are blowouts featuring a team that has no interest in being there, 3 additional games are blowouts because the talent is lopsided, 6 are competitive, and 1 is hard to watch because neither team wants to be there. Some exceptionally bad basketball can be seen during the first two rounds. When we get down to 8, the games get good. You wouldn’t be hurting that tournament bad enough to come close to offsetting the good that would be done by having the best teams playing in the best tournament.
The Bid-Stealers don’t have to go away, you can at least make this an option, I am sure several conferences would jump on board, where someone like the Big Ten would probably leave their bid to their champion.Hopefully this happens soon for the good of the tournament. At the same time, too many more upsets and it will happen for the good of the conferences