Monday, March 16, 2009

Conference Tournaments Still Blight NCAA Selection Process

The message is now clear to every NCAA men’s basketball conference: Get yourself a season-ending conference tournament—and then manipulate the system.

Conference tournaments suck. They’re stupid. Their existence invalidates the regular season conference schedule. And they were doubtless founded solely to generate cash. But according to the ESPN news story, Mississippi State, with its victory over Tennessee on Sunday, was “celebrating the league title.” Gee, I thought that honor went to LSU, with its 13-3 regular-season record against all SEC comers.

Mississippi State won the conference tourney, not the league title, but where the SEC is concerned that’s a damn fine thing. Because without it, one of the best (or apparently only formerly best) conferences in the nation would have had only two schools placed into the Big Dance—Tennessee and LSU. So in this case, the season-ending tourney helped the SEC, and thank God for that. Otherwise, the Atlantic-10—with Xavier, Dayton and Temple—would’ve placed more teams in the NCAAs than the SEC.

So maybe the SEC commissioner should issue a secret memo:

Dear SEC basketball coach:

Beginning with the 2009-2010 NCAA basketball season, any SEC team that is already assured a berth in the NCAA Tournament will purposely lose in the first round of our season-ending tourney.

There are three reasons why we are issuing this edict:

1) By losing early, teams already guaranteed an NCAA slot will get some needed rest, and avoid injury, as they prepare for the Big Dance.

2) All of our lesser teams will automatically improve on their records and enhance their chances as bubble teams or possibly as NIT candidates.

3) This will guarantee an additional SEC team’s automatic berth in the NCAAs as our tourney winner.

Let’s face it: That’s the way this thing works. And if you can’t trust the NCAA Selection Committee—the Big Ten has seven entries this year, while the SEC has three (make sense to you?)—then you gotta go along with everybody else and cook the books.

Consider the case of the Horizon League, which features such stalwart schools as Youngstown State (11-19), Detroit (7-23) and Valparaiso (9-22). The Horizon has one acknowledged first-tier team, Butler. According to the experts, Butler was already guaranteed a slot in the NCAAs. But for some reason, this dinky conference is awarded an automatic NCAA berth to the winner of its year-end conference tourney. So what happens? Butler loses in the tourney championship game to Cleveland State (the third-best squad in the Horizon), and now both schools are off to the Dance. If Mississippi State hadn’t pulled off its SEC tourney win, the Horizon League would’ve had as many schools in the NCAAs as the SEC.

Does anyone really think Cleveland State is better than SEC also-rans Auburn, or South Carolina or Florida?

The big schools who tanked in their conference tournaments made the smart play. North Carolina, Pitt, UConn, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wake Forest—they all get needed rest by bowing out early. And by doing so, they also leave a path open for their conferences’ lesser schools—like bubble-team Maryland in the ACC—to pad their resumes and enhance their Big Dance chances.

Frankly, I don’t know what Louisville and Duke—who advanced to their leagues’ title games—were thinking. Why waste all that energy—and why risk injury playing a game that means nothing—when a high seed awaits them anyway?

Conference tourneys should have no bearing on determination of the best teams in the country. But since they do, and since good teams in lesser conferences (e.g., St. Mary’s, Creighton) get screwed by the Cleveland States under the system, then it’s time to level the playing field.

What the heck. It’s time for the Ivy League to add that conference tournament. This year, its rep in the Big Dance is Cornell, 21-9 and clearly the class of the league. But if they had a year-end tourney, then maybe they could add another school to the postseason. Maybe 9-19 Brown would’ve gotten hot and won the automatic tourney bid. Wouldn’t that be fun...

There are two possibilities here: Either the SEC really sucks this year, or the system remains as flawed as ever. That said, the NCAA choices look acceptable in their typical way. Yet more reform is needed.

In the meantime, I’m all for that SEC secret memo. What’s the worst that could happen? Double secret probation??

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