Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Madness Hasn't Been Kind to the Regular Season Champ

Coastal Carolina Winning 2014 Big South Championship
One thing has become permanently clear in these two weeks coming up to Selection Sunday this season.  If you're the regular season conference champion, chances are you haven't likely fared too well in your conference tournament.    With Louisiana Tech losing to Tulsa last night in the Conference USA championship, that means now twelve mid major level conference regular season champions will have now have an automatic NIT bid because they lost in their conference tournament; Louisiana Tech, Florida Gulf Coast, Boston University, Vermont, Belmont, Robert Morris, UC Irvine, Iona, Green Bay, Utah Valley, High Point and Davidson.  If Georgia State loses in the Sun Belt Conference championship today, it will make it an even Baker's Dozen.

Robert-Morris-LIU 2011 NEC Championship
But it's not been just the mid major conference tournaments where the number #1 seed has gone down.  Villanova and St Louis, both #1 seeds, went down in the quarterfinals in the Big East and A-10 tournaments respectively.  Kansas lost in the semis to Iowa State in the Big 12.  Cincinnati lost in the AAC semifinals to UConn.   Yesterday, San Diego State lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West finals.  Arizona jeopardized a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by losing to UCLA in the Pac12 finals.

Now for all those regular season championship non mid major level teams that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the conference tournament didn't mean too much to them, since they were all guaranteed a bid to the NCAA Tournament.  Still, it likely affected several team's seedings in the NCAA Tournament, especially St Louis.

2012 CAA Tournament - George Mason v. VCU
As of this morning, only eight regular season championship teams won their conference tournament and got the automatic NCAA bid; Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Gonzaga (WCC), NC Central (MEAC), Weber State (Big Sky), Southern (SWAC), North Dakota State (Summit), Delaware (CAA) and Western Michigan (MAC).  A ninth team that won the regular season championship, Harvard in the Ivy League, got an automatic bid since the Ivy doesn't have a post conference tournament.

So why has it been so difficult for regular season champions across the board to win their postseason conference tournaments?   Well, there are several reasons.
  1. Complacency on the Non Mid Major Level - Let's be honest, it's hard for some Power Conference teams that have a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament to maintain their focus and level of play.   It's also difficult for those teams when playing similarly talented teams on that level.  Case in point, Villanova and St Louis.   Both teams played decent opponents in the quarterfinal rounds of their tournament;Seton Hall and St. Bonaventure. Both the Pirates and the Bonnies needed to run the table to win, so they went all out and caught the Wildcats and Billikens napping.  It happens.
  2. Quality of Opponent - On the power conference level, you have ranked teams playing each other in the semifinals, even sometimes in the quarterfinals in the conference tournament.  So there certainly is very little difference between Kansas and Iowa State, Cincinnati and UConn, San Diego State and New Mexico, and Arizona and UCLA.   Cincinnati only received the #1 seed, because they won a coin flip vs. Louisville, who ended up winning the AAC.

    This has also been true for some of the smaller conference tournaments.  Florida Gulf Coast, the #1 seed, lost the Atlantic Sun championship game on its home court to Mercer, the #2 seed.   The Bears were returning the favor from a year ago when the Eagles won on Mercer's home court in the A-Sun championship.  Boston U, the #1 seed, lost the Patriot Conference Championship on their home court to the #2 seed, American.  Finally, Iona lost to the #2 seed Manhattan in the MAAC Conference Tournament final, a team they split with during the regular season.
  3. "Neutral Site" Tournaments - This is where many of the mid major regular season champions got tripped up.  There are a good number of mid major level tournaments that are hosted on "neutral" sites for likely monetary reasons.   In one case in particular, the America East, the first two rounds conference tournament has been held on one of the conference member sites (the championship has been held on the higher seed's home court).  In this season and last season, it was hosted by Albany.  And in the last two seasons, Albany has knocked off the #1 seed in the semifinals (2013 - Stony Brook, 2014 - Vermont).  The Great Danes have used this momentum in both seasons to win the conference tournament, knocking off Vermont and Stony Brook on those school's respective home courts.

    The Big South also has a "neutral site" conference tournament that's hosted by one of its schools, Coastal Carolina, with a little help from the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.  High Point lost on a buzzer beater in the quarterfinals to Winthrop, which opened the door for the host Chanticleers to win the Big South Tournament.

    Once conference that used to be held in Albany and was moved to a true neutral site, due to concerns about Siena's home court advantage, is the MAAC.  The MAAC Tournament has been held in Springfield, "MAAChusetts" the last couple of seasons, which is where Iona lost to Manhattan in the championship this year.  However, attendance has been so bad in Springfield, the MAAC is considering other sites, including bring the tournament back to Albany.

    Other conference tournaments also use true neutral sites.  Asheville hosted the Southern Conference Tournament, where Davidson got knocked off by Western Carolina in the semifinals.  The WAC hosted their tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, which is where Utah Valley lost to Idaho in the conference semifinals.   Finally the Big West was held in Anaheim, California, where Cal Poly used the momentum from knocking off #1 seed UC Irvine to beat CS Northridge in the Big West Championship.

    Many people, including myself, don't think neutral site championships are fair on the mid major level. It's one thing where Power Six conferences or next level conferences like the Mountain West and A-10 can hold neutral site tournaments based on crowd attendance (it even works with the Missouri Valley to a lesser extent).  But at the Southern, WAC or Big West levels, a neutral site doesn't really draw a large crowd to justify a neutral site.  And in the case of the skewered America East host school "neutral site" tournament, it certainly doesn't justify that.

    To me and others, it doesn't reward all the work that regular season championship teams have done to finish in first and it also often doesn't put the best conference team in the tournament.   That's why I think the Ivy League has no post season tournament.  The regular season champion that was consistently best all season earns the automatic bid.

    It's my opinion that mid major conferences either go to an Atlantic Sun/NEC based tournament, where the higher seeds host the conference games throughout the various levels of the tournament or move to a Horizon League Tournament, where the #1 seed hosts the first two rounds of the tournament and the championship is held on the highest remaining seed's court.  Thus teams will be rewarding for a regular season accomplishment.  But...
  4. Even With Home Court Advantage, Some Schools Can't Stand Prosperity - Even with the home court advantage, four regular season champions fell by the wayside in their conference tournament.  Green Bay, the Horizon League Regular Season Champion, again lost to Milwaukee on its home court in the conference semifinals.  The Phoenix lost at home to the Panthers earlier in the season.   As noted, Florida Gulf Coast lost at home to Mercer in the A-Sun finals.  Finally, Robert Morris lost at home in the NEC finals to Mount St Mary's.
2011 CAA Tournament - VCU v. George Mason
It's been the craziest conference tournament season I can ever remember.  And as a result, a lot of NIT hopefuls will be now scrambling for bids to the CIT and CBI, Defiantly Dutch's favorite tournament.  This season has shown, now more than ever, with rare exceptions, the regular season doesn't mean a thing.

I love conference tournaments, especially considering all the years I have been to the CAA Tournament, let alone NEC and Big South championship games.  Some of my favorite memories have come from sitting in a usually cold Richmond Coliseum, especially the 2011 and 2012 #CAAHoops semifinals.  There's nothing better than a sold out, raucous crowd during a conference tournament.  I will always remember fondly sitting in the Blackbirds' student section during LIU's overtime win over Robert Morris in the 2011 NEC Tournament final.

But sometimes, on the fairness level of conference tournaments and regular season champions, I think the Ivy League knows best.

No comments:

Post a Comment