The first automatic bid to the 2015 NCAA Tournament was handed out on Saturday night in Nashville, Tennessee. The way in which the Belmont Bruins earned their way into the field of 68 could not have been more dramatic.
Belmont and its opponent, the Murray State Racers, basically traded basketball haymakers for 40 minutes. The two teams either tossed in one outrageously long three after another, or soared to the basket for an assortment of acrobatic layups or dunks.
Punch. Counterpunch. Surge. Countersurge.
Belmont gained the upper hand after the first 10 minutes. Murray State owned the next 10 minutes. The final 20 minutes were played on the razor’s edge, with the lead within one possession, either way, for almost all of the home stretch. At the end, Belmont — trailing by two — knocked in a ridiculously difficult three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left. Taylor Barnette, fading away from the hoop, still put the ball in the bucket from 26 feet to give the Bruins an 88-87 lead.
Murray State, with timeouts in hand, possessed the ability to throw the ball to midcourt and call another timeout to set up its play. However, the Racers chose to throw a short inbounds pass, leaving their ballhandler 79 feet from the basket. A desperate halfcourt heave wasn’t even released in time, and Belmont made its way to Bracketville.
It was all so outrageously entertaining. Pardon the cliche, but we are transfixed by the Ohio Valley… and Southern Conference… and Colonial Athletic Association championship games because we know the stakes are so high.
The winner Dances. The loser weeps. There is no in-between… and no, getting a No. 1 seed in the NIT is not an in-between place. March is for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We saw this on the faces of the jubilant Belmont players… and in the familiar snapshots of heartbroken Murray State competitors.
This is March — it is not a new sensation for us as fans, but it’s new for the players that step into this environment for a few years, creating memories that last a lifetime in one form or another. We see the annual parade of winners and losers in this month of Madness, but for the players, it’s their moment — they might not get another chance to compete in a conference tournament title game. Because the players feel so deeply, the TV visuals are pure gold.
Accordingly, the conferences that stage these games receive some ESPN cash… because ESPN knows this is the best publicity they’ll get all year, at least on a wider national scale:
The reason why smaller leagues won't eliminate their tournaments is a rather simple one: we're all watching. The exposure is why they stay.
— Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej) March 8, 2015
All this leads us to a simple but very important point: While it’s great to think of a world in which regular-season conference champions from the one-bid leagues should be granted automatic entry into the NCAA tournament, the theater of the conference tournament is too powerful — and popular — to ignore.
This leads to a very urgent and generally unpleasant conversation about how to treat a team such as Murray State, left at the NCAA tournament altar this season.
Murray State is a poster child for why the conference tournament is fundamentally unfair. The Racers don’t have the non-conference resume to justify NCAA inclusion under current selection metrics and guidelines. They don’t. Murray State was ranked No. 25 in the polls this week, but remember that SMU was No. 25 during conference tournament week (and officially, on Selection Sunday) last year. Polls, in hoops, mean nothing. Murray State will be in the NIT — under the current guidelines, it’s not a debate.
What IS the debate? It’s this: SHOULD a team such as Murray State get preferential treatment as an at-large team instead of a team such as Texas or Oklahoma State? Both the Longhorns and Cowboys finished 8-10 in the Big 12. Oklahoma State will very likely make the NCAA tournament. Texas has a chance to get in and will be right near the cut line entering Selection Sunday (unless it makes the final of the Big 12 tournament).
Yes, Oklahoma State and Texas beat a few notable teams, more than Murray State did. However, the Racers won 17 of 17 conference games before losing to Belmont by one point in the OVC final.
We can all put two and two together and agree that Murray State was a much more consistent team during its season. Of course, the Racers didn’t play in the Big 12, but please, keep that football argument out of here. Murray State was perfect in its conference for over two months, then lost a game by a point, and has its NCAA fate determined by that one point.
Texas and Oklahoma State had losing records in their conferences but are right in the NCAA mix. Something about that doesn’t seem right.
Yet, as we’ve established above, the conference tournaments aren’t going to go away, and no, they’re not going to remain as exciting as they are if they give an automatic NIT bid to the winner while sending their regular-season champions to the NCAAs. The conference tournaments would lose the main measure of their magic and mysteriousness.
We HAVE to come up with a better solution to what can reasonably be called “The Murray State Problem.”
The solution is this: Keep the conference tournament autobid structure. Keep the 68-team NCAA field. Don’t change the things that make March Madness what it is. Make a tweak to at-large selections.
Here’s the common-sense tweak: Of the 36 at-large teams in the tournament, simply establish the criterion that if a team goes unbeaten in its conference during the regular season, it gets a protected at-large berth. Don’t automatically exclude teams such as Texas or Oklahoma State because of their sub-.500 conference records, but DO give a team such as Murray State a ticket into the field. The people in charge of the selection process could also install a provision that if a team loses no more than once in its conference during the regular season and loses in the conference tournament final, it also gets a protected at-large berth.
The sticky point here is where to draw the line in terms of giving protected at-large bids. Everyone’s going to draw that line in a different spot. However, the fundamental notion of protecting the Murray States of the world is, I think, a sound one. It is much more a tribute to the regular season to see a 17-1 conference team get a shot in March Madness, as opposed to a middling power-conference team that backs into an 11 seed, typically a team which underachieves in January and February.
Can we do this? Let’s hope college basketball’s power brokers will turn a CAN into a WILL very soon.
The Murray States of the world deserve better.