Do Conference Tournaments Need to Be a Thing?
March Madness starts today! Well the NCAA Tournament starts today, but the madness has already been going on. The madness was there as we all scrambled to fill out our brackets, fretting over potential first round upsets, changing Elite 8 winners and eventually selecting a national champion that we still are not sure about. The madness was there at the selection show as we watched eager to see who was over seeded and which coaches would cry conspiracy towards the committee. And even before that, the madness carried Michigan and Iowa State to unlikely conference tournament wins. And that same madness left in its wake a few teams that deserved to run with the madness for a little longer.
UC Irvine (21–14 First Place in the Big West)
The Anteaters had a great year but lost in their conference tournament final by three to UC Davis, a team with a better win-loss record but a KenPom rating 6.62 points worse (or 80 spots worse, from 138 in the country to 218). Davis has now proven its place in the tournament with a First-Four-mini-upset of NC Central but Irvine could have sought a 15 seed, something which could have been much more beneficial to the Big West long term.
The Irvine roster only had two seniors but one is leading scorer Luke Nelson, a sweet shooting guard who it will be tough to replace. When you have a player of his caliber a program hopes to build on that and vault itself higher, missing the tournament makes that harder. Here is to the Anteaters (possibly the least intimidating mascot in basketball) finding a way to move forward, and that won’t be the NIT after tonight's loss.
Valparaiso (24–8 First Place in the Horizon)
Alec Peters is a star in the Horizon League. The senior forward did everything for the Crusaders, but it wasn’t quite enough. Losing by two to Milwaukee, the tenth best team in their conference, was a huge under achievement by a team that had a shot at commanding a 14 seed and a possibility of an upset.
Northern Kentucky is a great story, making the tournament in their first year of eligibility, but getting killed by their fellow statesmen in the opening round can’t be ideal for the Horizon League. As for Valpo, well Illinois has knocked them out of the NIT, ending five seniors careers.
Monmouth (27–6 First Place in the MAAC)
Remember the team that had all the crazy bench celebrations on SportsCenter last year? That was Monmouth, and that bench was celebrating some pretty good basketball. The Hawks are led by senior guard Justin Robinson and like the first two teams on this list, had their NIT run ended already.
Monmouth’s story goes a little deeper though, as in their tournament they lost to Siena, at Siena. How a lower seeded team is allowed to host the tournament I do not know. As this huge advantage not only ruined a possible 13 seed by KenPom’s numbers but also robbed the country of what I can only imagine would have been the best bench celebration display the NCAA Tournament had ever seen. Not sad yet? Seven seniors bid adieu.
Belmont (22–6 First Place in the OVC)
The Bruins are good, they also could have landed on the 14 line if not for an untimely loss to Jacksonville State. After beating them twice in the season Belmont, led by senior forward Evan Bradds, couldn’t complete the third and crutial win. Leading the OVC tournament representative to be 6.81 points worse according to KenPom.
Belmont beat Georgia, so their run still continues but the stage doesn’t seem big enough for their three seniors who won’t get to see the tournament. Good luck to Jacksonville State, and they will need that to have a chance against Louisville’s length and press.
UT Arlington (25–5 First Place in the Sun Belt)
The highest KenPom rated team out of these schools UT Arlington could have had a shot at a 13 seed if not for a shocking 30-point loss to Texas State. Who will now represent the Sun Belt as a 16 seed. To show what that switch means it is going from playing UNC to playing Butler. One of those teams is at least beatable for UT Arlington, and it isn’t UNC.
The Mavericks continued on though, beating BYU easily in the opening NIT round. With their five seniors this may be the year that they have to capitalize on this run of success, but nobody watches the NIT. Arlington does return leading scorer Kevin Hervey, but will he have enough help next year?
South Dakota (22–11 First Place in the Summit)
After being beaten by their rival South Dakota State by three in the Summit Semifinal their one senior, star Tyler Flack’s, career essentially ended. Though South Dakota couldn’t have hoped for much more than the 15 seed that the Jackrabbits ended up getting, they may have been a better representative for the Summit.
After losing their opening NIT game the Coyotes now regroup to hopefully take down their in-state rivals next year. But after a year as exciting as this one there can sometimes be a let down to follow. Goals are hard to achieve and failure can make or break a team.
The conference tournament issue is much more than about sending the best team from your conference to the tournament. It is about making money from your own tournament and the best way to generate that interest is to make it mean something. The problem is, it may mean too much.
I hope some conference decides to take the longer view, and instead of capitalizing on a small revenue on the front end of televising conference tournament games, sends the best team from their conference. Hoping to raise the entire quality of league play and capitalize on potential upsets in the tournament. For each NCAA tournament win conferences also get paid.
It is pretty difficult to find the figures of these mid-major conference TV deals, except for this breakdown on a BYU Fan Blog about the Conference USA TV deal from a year ago. Great write-up that shows that the schools themselves seem to pocket $200,000 to $300,000 each. And I would expect that to be much larger than all of the conferences mentioned in this piece. A Tournament Unit (read more about that here) is worth over 250,000 this year. Meaning that one win in the Tournament is probably worth more than two years of conference tournament television rights. And when those units begin to stack, worth way, way more.
I am a subscriber to the “longest view in the room” idea, and I hope a conference chair can convince his constituents to be too. Though it looks like we are moving the other way. The Ivy League was the last hold out to the conference tournament idea, and they too partook this year. If you convinced the Ivy’s, well then maybe I am wrong. Or maybe the fact that they held out so long should tell us about the mistake we maybe making.
When you watch the madness today, and tomorrow, and every day it continues. Remember Monmouth, Valparaiso, UT Arlington, UC Irvine, Belmont and South Dakota. Remember Conference Chairs, Tournament Units, and TV Deals. Remember the seniors who watched their athletic lives end in the name of greed. And then think about the madness, has it gotten too mad?