The inclusion of mid-majors in the NCAA tournament is vital to the integrity of the competition, but the process by which small-conference representatives are chosen for the field is inherently unfair.
Just ask the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which saw an entire season’s dominance rendered useless Saturday night in a Horizon League semifinal loss to UW-Milwaukee. Or Robert Morris, which was the cream of the Northeast Conference this season, only to have its tourney hopes evaporate when it laid an egg in the conference championship game Tuesday against Mount St. Mary’s.
Sure, it makes for a fun celebration for the unlikely victors - in this case, a Milwaukee team that went 7-9 in conference play and a Mount St. Mary’s squad that improved to .500 on the season with its win. But it also makes for a special kind of heartbreak for the losing teams who rightfully feel that a spot in the field of 68 should be earned over the course of an entire season, not one week or one night.
If we’re going to allow small-conference champs to replace more talented teams from bigger leagues in the field, we need to at least make sure those leagues are sending their best representatives to the party. The only way we can truly assure that this happens is to have every conference go the way of the Ivy League and make the regular-season champ the one that qualifies for the automatic bid.
In one-bid leagues, it would assure that the most deserving teams are the ones taking part in March Madness. (North Dakota State, on Tuesday, just barely avoided becoming yet another tournament-worthy team to have their invite swiped at the last minute.)
Meanwhile, in major conferences, where the top few seeds are generally assured at-large bids anyway, very little would change, as top teams could play for the sake of seeding while weeding out the rare conference champ that doesnât deserve its ticket to the dance (think Georgia in 2008).
It’s a rare case in which college basketball could learn a lesson from college football and make the regular season and a team’s entire body of work count for more than one sizzling week at the conference tournament. And though it would remove some of the drama from the conference tournaments – should they even still need to exist at all – it would make for a much more exciting and fair bracket come tourney time.
Let’s take a look at the state of the tournament bubble after Tuesday nightâs games:
BYU: The Cougars were unable to secure the West Coast Conference’s automatic bid Tuesday night against Gonzaga, and early on, the game had all the makings of a blowout that very well could have sent them straight to the NIT. But the WCC’s No. 2 seed made a game of things, and that, combined with a 32nd-ranked RPI, should be enough to get them into the field.
UW-Green Bay: As stated above, the Phoenix’s tourney hopes were all but dashed in that semifinal loss to eventual Horizon League champ Milwaukee over the weekend, but there’s still a pulse. Green Bay played a tough non-conference slate that saw them knock off Virginia and nearly top Wisconsin and Harvard, and though it seems unlikely that they get an at-large bid, the perfect combination of losses among the major-conference bubble teams could make it a reality.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR:
Robert Morris: The Colonials did everything they could in order to get into the Big Dance – except for the one thing they had to do. And between getting stomped by sub-.500 Mount St. Mary’s and that atrocious 121 RPI aided by an 0-8 record against the RPI top 150, there’s no chance they’re getting an at-large bid. Better luck next year, fellas.