March Madness is here, and 32 conferences will hold their tournaments over the next two weeks to determine nearly half the field in the NCAA Tournament.
For about nine leagues it’s a matter of how many teams will be in the NCAA Tournament. But that leaves nearly three-fourths of conferences having the automatic bid as the only path to One Shining Moment, corporate sponsored crying towels, and Jim Nantz’s tie.
So if we’re just throwing all of a league’s teams in a blender anyway for 3-5 days anyway, what’s the point of a regular season in the first place? You’re playing as many as 20 games to just determine seeding in a one-off tournament to end the year? This is a good idea?
Conferences could just give the bid to the regular season winner, which is how the Big Ten did it until 1998 and the Ivy League until 2017. But the downside is you’re ruining the season for most players and season ticket holders by early February. Drop a couple league games early and the season is over, which is how it works in plenty of Division I sports like volleyball and soccer. It often doesn’t make for the most exciting product by Senior Day, and leads to fans checking out earlier than schools would like.
Plenty of leagues leave their worst teams home, all conferences except the Ivy take at least eight teams to their postseason tournament. So you need a conference tournament that has stakes, but also one that rewards the teams that performed the best over a 16-20 game conference season. How do you strike that balance?
You implement the double or triple bye system that the Ohio Valley, West Coast, and Western Athletic Conference already have!
Unlike most leagues, the OVC, WAC and WCC have their best two teams advance immediately to the “semifinals” of their tournament. If those top two seeds win just one game, a game against an opponent that has played a do-or-die game often less than 24 hours before, they advance the final and play for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Also, under this system the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds go right to the “quarterfinals,” and it’s up to the lesser teams on the grid to meet them there by playing preliminary rounds, while the better regular season records are rewarded with rest.
To win the West Coast Conference, the 10th-placed and thus worst team in the league would have to win five basketball games in six days to advance to the NCAA Tournament. In the WAC, it’s five in five.
This balances the excitement of single-elimination play, rewards the best teams with rest and practice time, while lesser teams during the regular season have to survive the physical and mental grind of having their season end at any time.
Some larger conferences take a modified version of this, with the ACC (15 teams) and Big Ten (14) both giving their best four teams a berth directly to the quarterfinals. It’s a nice reward for the winning teams, but they could make it even better with a bracket that looks like this:
Game 1. #12 vs. #9
Game 2. #11 vs. #10
Game 3. Winner of Game 1 vs. #7
Game 4. Winner of Game 2 vs. #8
Game 5. Winner of Game 5 vs. #5
Game 6. Winner of Game 6 vs. #6
Game 7. Winner of Game 7 vs. #3
Game 8. Winner of Game 8 vs. #4
Game 9. Winner of Game 9 vs. #1
Game 10. Winner of Game 10 vs. #2
Game 11. Game 11 Winner vs. Game 12 Winner
The worst teams would have to win six games, but everyone still has a reason to continue the season as far as they can. And while we eliminated the worst two or three teams from participating at all, that makes the end of the regular season look more like a relegation battle in European soccer. As fans of football on the Continent will tell you, that’s often as exciting as a race for the title.
One-off basketball games aren’t a just way to determine champions. The reason why the best team overwhelmingly advances in the NBA is because it takes as many as seven games to determine the winner. But win-or-go-home is a necessary evil in the current climate of college basketball, especially with so much of the money in the sport being determined by just one month of the year.
Rewarding the best teams with byes is the best way to mitigate the competing interests here. So why doesn’t everyone do this?