Just about 2 years ago, the NCAA was thinking out loud about the possibility of expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams. Under this scenario, they would guarantee a spot for the regular season and conference tournament champions of every conference. The reason this was contemplated, beyond the obvious consideration of increased revenue, was the fact that many dominant regular season champions from mid-to-low majors were being upset in their conference tournaments.
Why, many wondered, should a team with 25+ wins and a near perfect conference record miss the Big Dance simply because they were upset in their conference tournament, perhaps as late as the finals? Why should a team with a losing record earn a spot in the NCAA tournament simply because they got hot enough to win 3 games in 3 days in an empty arena on a neutral floor versus a team who was successful during their entire body of work only to have one off day?
Heck, what IS the point of a 30 game regular season, including 12 non-conference games and 18 conference games if all that REALLY matters are three games of the conference tournament?
For instance, St. Bonaventure finished just 10-6 in their conference. There was no way they were going to get an at-large berth, but they won their conference tournament and earned a spot, taking one away from an at-large candidate. Colorado finished just 11-7 in the conference and there was no way they were going to get an at-large berth and yet by winning the conference tournament, they took a spot away from an at-large candidate. Every year in fact, there are a number of bubble teams hoping that the leaders of their respective conferences do not get upset in the conference tournaments, as it reduces the number of at-large berths. But, if a team was good enough to get into the NCAA tournament one day, why should it matter who might win or lose half-a-continent away the next?
Then there is Western Kentucky. At 15-18 overall and just 7-9 in the Sun Belt Conference they are going to the NCAA tournament instead of Middle Tennessee State who finished 14-2 in conference and 25-6 overall. How is that fair? Is that really what the NCAA tournament is all about? Is the real goal of the NCAA to have a three day event matter more than the previous four months?
In the past, it was so easy of us fans of teams in the so-called “major” conferences to dismiss those kinds of events because frankly they didn’t mean anything to us. Who cares that Vermont is going instead of Stony Brook? Who cares if Lamar (10-6 in conference) is going instead of Texas-Arlington (15-1 in conference). Those conferences were “weak” and it really didn’t matter who made it in to use. In fact, there were those who felt many of those conferences did not even deserve automatic spots in the Big Dance anyways. But, now we are feeling it in Huskyland. For the first time in history, a regular season conference champion from a “major” conference has been excluded. The Huskies went 14-4 in conference play. They won the outright title. They didn’t “tie” for the title, they won it. One of the Huskies losses was to California. But, without that game, the Huskies would have won it by two-games over Cal.
How is losing to Cal, at Colorado, at Oregon, and at UCLA any worse than California losing five conference games in this “weak” conference? Yet, California got an at-large bid. It really makes me appreciate the frustration fans of mid-majors must have when they are having a tremendous season and thinking about the possibilities only to see everything evaporate with one poor performance in their conference tournament. Heck, sometimes it isn’t even so poor. For instance, Oral Roberts went 17-1 in the Summit League and 27-6 overall and then lost by just 1 point in the semi-finals of their conference tournament and they ended up in the NIT?
To me, it is time to rethink the NCAA tournament format and selection process. Either winning a regular season conference championship matters or it doesn’t. To me, the regular season championship is much more difficult and says more about the character of a team than getting hot for three days in half-empty arenas. Plus, conference tournaments have a bit of inconsistency since it also depends on the luck of the draw in who you play, what upsets decide who your next opponent is, matchups, etc). So, perhaps the NCAA tournament should instead give its automatic spots to those who win the regular season title, then use the conference tournaments as qualification for the NIT and/or for teams to improve their bubble status.
And, if that is not enough for the NCAA…If that will “weaken” the significance of the conference tournaments, then perhaps both teams should get in. And, if that is the case, then yes, let’s go ahead and expand the tournament to 96 teams and just get rid of the NIT all together. Maybe it will “dilute” the field. But, at least in that way everyone has a fair shake and no one will be left out in the cold.