Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Conference Tournaments: The Big Stumbling Block to Fairness at the Big Dance

Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim (seen left, pleading for an answer) was all over the radio and TV Monday. He thinks his Orangemen got jobbed being left out of the NCAA basketball tournament. He marshaled all his reasons why his team did “everything they had to do” to get a tourney invite. He made some good points. Unfortunately, an equal number of counter-points could be made against him. But I’m sure he’s particularly steamed because Villanova got a bid, when Syracuse had the better record in the Big East Conference regular season.

Boeheim’s probably also wondering why Kentucky, a perennial power in a down year (much like the Orangemen) made the tourney while he’s taking his team to the NIT. There are other anomalies along these lines. For example, Stanford is 18-12 and has lost four of its last five games, six of its last nine, and their selection goes directly against what the selectors supposedly tell us they look for at this time of year: teams that are hot. (Stanford is not.) Illinois is another team that hasn’t clearly earned the right to be here. Their only quality wins are over Michigan State and Indiana. Hard to know what they did to get a nod over Syracuse.

This wholly imperfect system is probably negotiated as best as possible by the Tournament Selection Committee. There were 104 teams achieving 20-win seasons this year. At some point, there are too many interpretable variables to make of it a true science. Even statistical-based methodologies like the RPI and the Sagarin Ratings go the way of any statistical measure: at some point, you can start to massage them any which way to make a point. Strength-of-schedule factors and out-of-conference road victories also become dizzying to compute with absolute fairness when there are 336 teams in the total mix. Plus, you can’t fight the fact that every major conference gets to send somebody to the Big Dance, regardless of how good they are. At-large openings get hard to come by as the days dwindle down to Selection Sunday.

Which brings us to the following six tourney participants: Wright State, Arkansas, New Mexico State, George Washington, UNLV and Miami (Ohio). If Boeheim is looking for a way in which March Madness can get closer to March Sanity, he might start lobbying for the cancellation of conference tournaments. If not for conference tourneys, the above-named do not necessarily get invited to the Dance. Let’s look at each situation:

1. Wright State—Does the podunk Horizon League deserve two teams in the tourney? Butler was the league’s regular season champ, and the only reason Wright St. is in is because they beat Butler in the conference tournament and grabbed the automatic bid. But Butler had no incentive to care if they win that game. They know that, based on their superior resume, they’re in anyway as an at-large no matter what they do. Makes you wonder.

2. Arkansas—They shouldn’t be here. They were 7-9 in the SEC, underachieved all year, with their best wins coming versus Southern Illinois, Vanderbilt and Alabama. Then they win a few games in the SEC tourney and snag a bid. They didn’t even win their conference tournament, losing to Florida. Maybe if they beat the Gators, we could see it. But they didn’t. They got their asses kicked. Bad selection.

3. New Mexico State—Kind of a feel-good story here, with former NBA star Reggie Theus emerging as a successful college coach. The Aggies were 6-24 two seasons ago. At 25-8, they snagged the Western Athletic Conference crown by winning their conference tourney. But the real, regular-season WAC champ was Nevada, who, again, lost their conference tournament, but with a 28-4 record were already assured of the Dance. They end up with an at-large bid, and once again a conference tourney opens up a slot for another team that maybe shouldn’t be here. NMSU’s quality wins? Nevada and Utah State.

4. George Washington—Same situation. Xavier was the big team in the Atlantic 10, winning the regular-season crown with a 13-3 record. GW was 11-5 regular season, but they won the A-10 tourney, and now they’re in. Xavier tanks in the league tourney, but they were headed into the NCAAs anyway based on solid factors. If Xavier had won the league tourney, would GW have made it in as an at-large? The answer is no. GW quality wins: Rhode Island, Virginia Tech.

5. UNLV—More of the same: Brigham Young won the Mountain West regular season and got an at-large bid. UNLV won the conference tournament, and gets crowned “champs” and accepts the automatic bid.

6. Miami (Ohio)—If I were Akron or Toledo, I‘d be pissed. Clearly the two best teams in the Mid-American Conference this year, based on the regular season, both lose out in the season-ending MAC tourney, with Akron dropping the championship to 18-14 Miami on a buzzer beater. Miami’s big quality wins? That game, Rutgers and Indiana State. Some quality. This team should not be in the Dance. They can only walk. But they got lucky.

What is the point of having regular-season conference standings, if the conference tournament will decide a “champ”? I don’t get it. Well, yeah, I do. It’s all about money. If you didn’t have to have a season-ending conference tourney, why else would you bother to have one? So you can make money, of course, from ticket sales and concessions and TV and radio revenue.

If Boeheim is looking for the culprit that prevents more fairness in NCAA selection policy, the season-ending conference tournament is it. It’s bad enough we’ve got teams like Belmont and Central Connecticut State taking up space in the brackets, but at least we understand that they are the lone representatives of their small-time conferences.

Until the NCAA field gets expanded—Boeheim is apparently all for it—then maybe the season-ending tourneys should be given no weight at all. Let them exist as money-making showcases for teams and their fans. Or, better yet, get rid of ‘em altogether.

One less Miami of Ohio and one more Syracuse elevates the caliber of play. Isn’t that what the tourney is all about?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're damn good!