Of all the years for the Ivy League to announce its abandonment of its long-held tradition of its regular-season champion earning its automatic NCAA tournament bid, this was an odd one.
Amid unprecedented numbers of upsets across the nation’s mid-major conference tournaments, many around the sport actually have felt the Ivy League’s system might make the most sense: It sends its regular-season champion to the NCAA tournament, rewarding the team that has been the best in the conference over two months, not two days.
Of the 12 automatic qualifiers determined so far this season by a conference tournament, only one was the league’s No. 1 seed. In short, the regular-season champions of mid-major leagues are falling like fleas.
Though that makes for exhilarating television and some unbelievably improbable runs, it does not necessarily make for the greatest likelihood of Cinderellas come the NCAA tournament — not if non-power leagues are not sending their best teams to the big dance, teams that could potentially win at least a game or two.
With so many upsets in smaller-conference tournaments this week, USA TODAY Sports raised the question to those involved: Would these leagues be better off sending their regular-season champion to the NCAA tournament instead of their conference champ?
Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew would say yes, having seen his top-seeded team upset Monday in the Horizon League semifinals. So would Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who lost in the Ohio Valley Conference semis. Or wildly popular Monmouth, which fell to No. 2 seed Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) final. Or even Saint Mary’s, beat by Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship game.
All of those teams won their league’s regular-season titles. All are hoping for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, however slim the odds of receiving one are.
“It definitely would be nice to reward the team that’s won it throughout the whole regular season,” Drew said. “You go for two months and you work really hard to be the league champion and you get an injury, you run into a hot team and you lose one game.”
In Valparaiso’s case, that injury was to Tevonn Walker, the team’s third-leading scorer, who missed the semifinal against Wisconsin-Green Bay, but Drew said Walker is cleared to play in the postseason. Drew called the three days coaching the Horizon League championship the most stressful of his year.
“You’re playing to win, but you’re also playing not to give up what you’ve just earned for the last two months,” Drew said. “And the other team, they’re basically going in guns a’ blazing, have nothing to lose. Where if you’re in the 1 seed, you’ve worked extremely hard to be the conference champion, and you’re the best team over the course of a few months.”
Drew called Belmont’s Byrd on Tuesday night to lament potentially being knocked out of the dance by the risk of having to play in his own league tournament. Byrd, who has both benefited from having gone on surprise conference tournament runs and also missed chances to dance because he’s been knocked out as the top seed, understood Drew’s feelings.
“In terms of fairness, the best representative of a league, I think the regular-season winner is it,” Byrd said. “That would have my vote, if I had a vote. But I don’t think any mid-major outside the Ivy League would consider it … Would a conference want to give up a nationally televised semifinal and final game while all the other conferences are getting that kind of exposure and excitement? The answer is no.”
Sure enough, three mid-major commissioners said the same thing. The benefits of hosting a postseason tournament that gets national TV attention — despite the risks that they may not then send their best team to the big dance — is worth its risks.
“We’ve thought about every single thing you could imagine,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “We’ve thought about no tournament; we’ve redone our bracket. But at the end of the day, you really have to stay internally focused and try to help your teams what we call be ‘built for at-large.’
“What does that mean? Well, it means you’ve got to go out and play as good a schedule as you can play in the non-conference segment knowing that some of the teams you want to play will not play you.”
Belmont coach Rick Byrd has led the Bruins to seven NCAA tournaments. (Photo: Jim Brown, USA TODAY Sports)
Said MAAC commissioner Richard Ensor: “For us, the tournament is important from a revenue standpoint, because we do make a decent amount of funding off of it from our broadcast package and just to keep our brand out there during the course of the season.”
Ensor, like some of the other commissioners interviewed, also described scheduling advantages that the higher-seeded teams receive in his league’s conference championship to, hopefully, help a team that has earned an advantage by its regular-season play. In some smaller conferences, home-court advantage is involved.
Still, it does not guarantee that the league’s best team will earn the auto-bid to the NCAA tournament.
“The question makes complete sense,” Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Beth DeBauche said. “It’s a question that we recently heard at a presidents’ meeting; one of the presidents said, ‘If your sole objective is to put the best team into the tournament, you build one format.’ That probably wouldn’t include a conference championship, but there are different objectives with the tournament. Not only do you want to send a team into the tournament and we have a merit-based system designed to try to help with that, but it is the championship experience that you provide for student-athletes and the heightened visibility that you give your league by having the tournament. The tournament for us is probably the most central event in our calendar year.”
To these commissioners, there is no alternative format that would accomplish the same goals while still sending the regular-season champion to the NCAA tournament. Even when presented with a theoretical idea of guaranteeing the regular-season champion an NCAA spot and the conference tournament champ a ticket to the NIT, the commissioners frowned.
“It’s not lost on anyone at one of these tournaments what’s at stake,” said DeBauche, whose conference is sending seventh-seeded Austin Peay to the NCAA tournament this season.
The drama, though, doesn’t help the teams that feel they’ve earned a spot in the big dance by their season-long performance. Both Valparaiso and Monmouth believe they’ve done all they could do to put themselves in position to make the NCAA tournament; in the part of the schedule they could control — the non-conference portion — they scheduled well (Monmouth’s non-conference SOS was 97, Valpo’s 51). They’re both hoping, when Selection Sunday comes, that their respective conferences’ penchant for being one-bid leagues will not bite them.
If they’re left out of the 68-team field, well, it’ll be a difficult pill to swallow.
“It would be tough because (Monmouth) has gone out and done everything the committee suggests that a mid-major team should do,” Ensor said. “They’ve gone out and played top programs on the road and won those games. I think it would be a big disappointment if they weren’t selected. We’re not a league that normally screams about at-large opportunities, but when you do have a team like this, that has followed the formula and achieved this level of success that the committee is looking for, we hope the recognition.”
Plus, if a team like Monmouth can get in as an at-large, it will show that maybe conference tournaments aren’t going to cause the biggest casualties of all: The loss of a mid-major team that’s been dominant all season long, one with perhaps an under-the-radar star just waiting to break through on the sport’s biggest stage.
And it would help fans from losing yet another potential Cinderella.
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