In a stretch from 2005 to 2007, Greg Jackson’s Delaware State Hornets were the toast of the MEAC, winning 32 of a possible 36 league games over that two-year span.
Yet they were never able to go dancing. That’s because the NCAA mistakenly rewards teams for reeling off three or four consecutive wins in a conference tournament rather than handing out a bid to the NCAA tournament for a body of work compiled in more than three months.
Makes no sense.
"The NCAA needs to change it,” Jackson said. "One team gets hot, and all you’ve done is null and void.”
Sure, the NCAA recently implemented a rule in which any team that wins their regular-season title receives an automatic bid to the NIT. But what kid these days grows up with dreams of playing in the NIT?
Delaware State was 16-2 in league play in 2005-06 but watched a Hampton team that was 10-8 in conference action go to the NCAA tournament. The next season the Hornets finished with an identical mark, yet this time, it was Florida A&M and its 12-6 mark that wound up getting automatic inclusion via three wins in March.
It wasn’t the only time that Florida A&M pulled the upset either. The Rattlers were 12-19 overall back in 1999 and pulled off the upset to win the league tournament and get into the Big Dance.
How about Oakland in 2005 winning the Mid-Continent tournament via a 13-19 overall record and a 7-9 league mark? The Grizzlies got the NCAA tourney invite, while a 25-8 Oral Roberts team that was 13-3 in league play was watching on television.
"I really feel for those teams,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "The hardest thing to do is to win your league. They need to do something about it.”
"The regular-season champion should be rewarded,” added former long-time Farleigh Dickinson head coach Tom Green. "The conference tournament is a crapshoot. You can have a star player that’s carrying you sprain an ankle, and all that hard work over three or four months is gone down the drain.”
It’ll happen this season to someone.
Siena enters this week’s MAAC tournament with a 24-6 overall record and a 17-1 mark in league play. Fran McCaffery’s team is the heavy favorite, but all it takes is one poor game, one ugly shooting performance on Monday night in Albany and the Saints will almost certainly be NIT-bound.
Murray State was 17-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference this season and Sam Houston State is three games in front of Stephen F. Austin in the Southland, but no one will care if they don’t win their conference tournaments.
"It’s a lot of pressure on coaches,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "There are guys who have won 20 games for 10 years and have never gone to the tournament.” "The regular season more accurately reflects who the best team is,” added Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, whose Bobcats enter the NEC tournament as the top seed.
However, it’s unlikely to change because of the almighty dollar. The leagues haul in too much revenue through these conference tournaments that it would be risky to do anything to diminish their importance.
Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton, who has been on both sides of the equation — including being left out of the tourney in 2005 when Oakland pulled the upset — doesn’t feel that it’s completely fair.
But he wouldn’t alter the current format.
"I see it both ways,” Sutton said. "That was our best team in 2005, but all people remember is we got beat by Oakland. What makes it special is that teams with a 10-game losing streak still have a shot to go to the dance. It gives teams something to play for.”
Like this year’s edition of Delaware State, which is four games back from Morgan State in the MEAC standings with a 15-11 overall record and a 10-5 mark in the league.
But Jackson knows the season isn’t over.
In fact, it’ll truly begin on Monday when the MEAC tournament gets under way down in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"Morgan State is the best team in our conference,” Jackson said. "But if we can get hot in the tournament and win it, does that mean we’re the best team in our league? If they get beat, we’re sending someone else who doesn’t have a chance of winning. Morgan State deserves to be there. They are the best team, and the conference champions should be represented in the NCAAs.”
"Last year may have been our worst team, and we won the tournament,” Dambrot admitted. "We benefited last year because we played well when it mattered most.”