Mid-Major Monday: Yay or Nay to Conference Tournaments?


Ask any college basketball die-hard, and most will attest that Championship Week — the ongoing bevy of conference tournaments across the 32 Division I leagues — actually beats next weekend’s NCAA Tournament opening rounds.

A compelling case exists. Conference tournaments offer action across virtually all waking hours, with no shortage of thrilling finishes. Championship Week provides exposure for players, teams and conferences not typically in the limelight. For these leagues in particular, the same do-or-die intensity that shapes the NCAA Tournament applies to their conference tournaments. Likewise, upsets are inevitable.

Conference tournament season is March Madness in spirit, but it’s worth asking if traditional one-bid conferences should eliminate theirs.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference provides the primary argument against conference tournaments this year, as it often has in the past decade. Niagara’s quarterfinal loss to sixth-seeded Fairfield on Saturday dropped No. 3 Niagara out of the MAAC Tournament; No. 2 Canisius and regular-season MAAC champion Rider both bowed out on Friday.

Last season’s MAAC Championship featured No. 3 Iona knocking off No. 4 Siena in an excellent title tilt, while regular-season champ Monmouth was relegated to an NIT automatic bid for a second consecutive season.

Missing the 2017 NCAA Tournament added further injury to a case of insult-to-injury. In 2016, the Hawks bunch that lost a classic MAAC Championship Game to Iona, 79-76, deserved an at-large invitation to the Big Dance. They’d beaten a USC team good enough to land an at-large, as well as a Notre Dame squad that fell just minutes shy of reaching the Final Four.

The selection committee’s exclusion of that particular Monmouth team sent a resounding message about current attitudes toward low-to-mid-majors: Win your conference tournament, or you’re out.

Almost four full months of results predating the three-to-four days of conference tournaments thus become meaningless for more than half of the Div. I leagues. Not every conference has it as bad as the MAAC, which has not sent its tournament No. 1 seed to the Big Dance since 2010. Still, enough quality low-to-mid-major conference champions that might otherwise improve the opening round of the NCAA Tournament miss the field every year due to conference tournaments that it’s not outlandish to suggest Championship Week’s bad for the sport.

A 1-seed curse approaching the severity of the MAAC ended Saturday, when Ohio Valley Conference champion Murray State became the league’s first No. 1 to dance on since 2013.

The 2013 OVC Championship marked the first of three to pit the Racers against Belmont, in a matchup of the conference’s two, clear standard-bearers for the past half-decade.

Now, three championship meetings between the best programs over six seasons hardly suggests a problem. But when a team that goes 16-0 in conference play and reaches the AP Top 25 is left out of the Field of 68 because of a two-point, conference title loss? Big problem.

2018 Murray State is in the field, one of five teams to clinch an automatic berth. The Racers are one of just two top seeds from conference tournaments to have done so, with Missouri Valley regular-season champ Loyola Chicago joining the fray Sunday. Loyola Chicago’s run through Arch Madness is fortunate; the Ramblers looked like prime candidates to face the same anti-mid bias that doomed Murray State in 2015 and Monmouth in 2016.

The rest of the field thus far features Big South No. 2 Radford, which finished a game behind UNC Asheville; Atlantic Sun No. 2 Lipscomb, which finished two games behind Florida Gulf Coast; the MAAC is guaranteed, once again, to produce a non-No. 1. So will the Horizon, which saw its regular-champion (Northern Kentucky) go down to a No. 9 for the second consecutive season (Oakland in 2017). 

Meanwhile, Michigan, which finished three games behind Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan State. Even the power conferences are prone.

But, if the MAAC provides the argument against conference tournaments, Michigan’s second consecutive run through the Big Ten is, in its own way, an argument for them.

Conference tournaments invalidate some, if not much of the regular season — and for that reason, provide the most accurate reflection of the NCAA Tournament itself. As exciting as the Tournament is, it’s not the most scientific determiner of a champion. Kentucky didn’t hang a title banner in 2015, South Carolina wasn’t one of the nation’s four best teams a season ago, and so on.

The unpredictable of March fuels the Madness. A team might struggle at points in the season, but can get on a run over those few days of a tournament. Michigan and South Carolina both did it a season ago, and another program almost assuredly will again in 2018. 

Power-conference programs aren’t the sole beneficiaries. Florida Gulf Coast parlayed its run from No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Sun Tournament in 2013, to become the first No. 15 to reach the Sweet Sixteen. In 2016, Gonzaga extended its NCAA Tournament streak that began in 1999, but was in serious jeopardy before a Vegas hot spell. The Zags flipped the switch in the WCC Tournament and came a possession shy of what would have been its third Elite Eight in as many years. 

And though quantifiable evidence can’t necessarily be produced, logic suggests a strong showing in conference tournaments can better prepare teams for the NCAA Tournament, putting the rigors of immediate turnarounds into action. Murray State and Loyola Chicago will both embark on the Big Dance tested in such an environment.