That’s a question that comes to mind annually during conference basketball tournaments – the most imperfect system ever devised to determine a league’s “champion.”
The question never seemed more pertinent than on Thursday after seeing a picture of an almost entirely vacant Georgia Dome minutes before tip-off between No. 8 and 9 seeds Missouri and Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. High school gyms have way more atmosphere.
Expansion has bloated conference tournament fields so much that the SEC and Atlantic Coast conferences now require five days to fit in all the games. Either Georgia Tech or South Carolina would have needed to win five consecutive days to earn titles. That would border on cruel and unusual punishment were it to ever happen.
The venerable ACC event – the one that inspired the conference tournament explosion – was forced to pull the curtain to cover upper level seats for opening round games in its traditional Greensboro, N.C., venue. It even brought in a former American Idol for a concert between games. This was an event that once rivaled the Masters Tournament as the toughest ticket to get in sports, and now it’s diminished by dilution.
When the ACC first created its tournament in 1954, it was a novel idea. March Madness, as we know it, didn’t exist yet. To make it unique, the ACC put the premium on winning the tournament title by declaring in 1961 its winner to be the true conference champion. The stakes in those earlier seasons were huge with only the tournament winner advancing for a chance to play for the national title.
In short, it was a very big deal.
In its modern form, the big deal is gone. The best conference teams are merely playing for NCAA Tournament seeding. The major conference tournaments have become much more about middling teams trying to get themselves off the “bubble” or outliers hoping to ride a hot streak into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field where they don’t really belong based on their season-long body of work.
In the lesser conferences, league tournaments can actually backfire. Mount St. Mary’s at 16-16 will represent the Northeast Conference in the NCAA field instead of 21-win Robert Morris because it got hot at the right time and the other had a bad day. Great story for the Mount, but not such good news for the Northeast not sending its best representative.
Georgia State went 17-1 in the Sun Belt Conference regular season, but if it gets bounced in the tournament championship game today in New Orleans there is no guarantee that the 25-win Panthers will go “dancing.”
Is it exciting? Sometimes. And perhaps that’s all that matters. There is a certain beauty in the democratic fairness of it all.
It was fun while it lasted seeing Clemson and Georgia make last-ditch runs to prove themselves NCAA Tournament worthy.
But perhaps there is a better way that rewards the full body of work more than a week of results. One option would be eliminating the conference tournaments and expanding the NCAA Tournament field instead. Take all those bubble teams – the Georgias, Clemsons, Florida States – and match them up with the Mercers, Coastal Carolinas and Robert Morrises in a 96-team bracket and spend this weekend paring the field down to 64 teams rather than trying to build up to it.
The best 32 teams – the first eight seeds in each division of the bracket – would get byes into the second week while the ones with weaker résumés can earn their way up against comparable competition. The smaller conference giants could stand a chance of making some noise for a week against relative equals and perhaps be more than opening game fodder for the top seeds.
It’s a bold concept, but one that’s not likely to sit well with conferences like the ACC which consider the conference tournament an essential money-maker in its TV marketing. With plans to take its tournament to Brooklyn in a few years (where more empty seats will await), the ACC isn’t giving up its cash cow.
So what to do? How about not guarantee conference tournament entry to every team. If you’re the 15th seed in the ACC, you don’t deserve to play for the championship. And if imbalanced schedules are worrisome, balance them up with more conference games.
England’s Premier League doesn’t even guarantee teams can even stay in the league if they perform badly, relegating the worse soccer franchises to a lower division while promoting others. The ACC and SEC and other large conferences should borrow a page and only allow its best eight teams into the conference tournament. It would return to a more manageable size and provide better matchups in every game.
At some point, it would be nice to see some creative thinking for college basketball’s future – the kind that came up with conference tournaments before they eventually became obsolete.