See the asterisk in the title of this piece?
Words are attached to asterisks. In this case, the words are “not really.”
No, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks did NOT clinch an automatic bid to the 2016 NCAA Tournament on Saturday night in Huntsville, Texas. A decisive win over the Sam Houston State Bearkats lifted the jumping ‘Jacks to an 18-0 record in the Southland Conference. Stephen F. Austin becomes the only team in Division I to record a perfect record in regular season conference play.
However, no automatic bid comes with that achievement. SFA will have to capture the Southland Conference Tournament in order to go Dancing.
We are brought in touch with an annual reality of college basketball which demands discussion and could benefit from a small-scale tweak. That tweak is the focus of this piece… and the source of the asterisked title.
Last season, three teams completed perfect regular seasons in their conferences. Kentucky was one, but of course, the Wildcats were always going to make the NCAA tournament. In the one-bid conferences, Murray State (Ohio Valley) and North Carolina Central (MEAC) also ran the table. However, the Racers and Eagles both lost in their conference tournaments.
Sorry, no trip to Bracketville… despite just one loss in conference play all season.
Belmont finished five games below Murray State over the course of a 16-game conference season, but beat Murray State in the Ohio Valley Tournament final. Hampton finished eight games behind N.C. Central in the MEAC, but the Pirates got hot in a four-game tournament and cashed their ticket to the NCAAs.
Somehow, an automatic bid to the NIT didn’t offer too much consolation to Murray or Central. The reality of playing two months of conference basketball, only for three or four days to decide what truly matters, rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
Moreover, it should. Since when should three games override 16 or 18? It’s not right.
And yet… you know why the conference tournaments exist.
They are very exciting. They create tremendous optics, arresting sounds, and generally enthralling television. The laughing, the crying, the living, the dying with every shot — the tournaments in the one-bid conferences provide so many magic sports (and television) moments. ESPN loves these spectacles. Fans do, too. This is consumer-friendly entertainment. It’s attractive. It works. It brings casual sports fans to college basketball.
We can’t do away with these events.
And yet… something must be done to reward (protect?) teams which excel in their conferences.
What tweak can be made to this system, so that the basic structures of March Madness and Championship Week can be left intact, while protecting superpower teams from one-bid conferences?
Last year, after 16-0 Murray State (17-0 including a tournament semifinal win) fell to Belmont in the Ohio Valley, I proposed “The Murray State Solution.” It’s not that hard a concept: Any team which goes unbeaten in its conference regular season gets a protected at-large bid to the Dance. The conference tournament still goes on, and still crowns an autobid winner. This basically means that if any team goes unbeaten in a one-bid league, the at-large pool would shrink.
Some might say in response to this plan that the smaller leagues, seeking extra NCAA tournament-provided revenue, would game the system and allow one superteam to run the table. The superteam would conveniently lose in the tournament, and PRESTO! Two bids from a league which would not — in the present day — have a single team worthy of an at-large bid.
I would only say in response that if teams and conferences did try to game the system, it’s not as though they could do so for a very long period of time. Let’s say that Team A is 12-0 in its conference on February 10, and Team B is 11-1. There’s zero incentive for Team B to roll out the red carpet for Team A. Even at 10-2, Team B would want to go all out and win. Only if a league arrived at the final week of its season — with the regular season title clinched — would this be a concern. Yet, isn’t that part of the point? If a team got that far, such that it put itself in position to run the table, that’s a feat in itself. Going 18-0, as Stephen F. Austin has now done for the second time in three seasons, should be set apart and recognized as a special achievement. That’s the biggest reason to implement this reform.
Fans of power-conference schools — think of Michigan, Oregon State, Florida State, and Cincinnati, all very much on the bubble after Saturday — would naturally protest, saying that this would take away an at-large bid from their teams.
My response? If a power-conference team can’t close the sale, as a result of being at or near .500 in the same 18-game schedule Stephen F. Austin played (the same in length, of course, not difficulty), I’m not going to lose any sleep about giving the protected at-large bid to the little guy who achieves at a much higher level, even if the competition is not as fierce.
Stephen F. Austin really should be in the NCAA tournament right now.*
* = It’s not.
One day, an 18-0 Southland team should be… without having to win a few more conference games in a league tournament.