Vermont was the best team in the America East conference this season. The Catamounts won 15 of 16 league games, marking the sixth straight season in which they finished first or second in the league. And yet a low-level unease set in as the year progressed. The quarterfinals and finals of the America East tournament, the event that would dispense the coveted – and lone – spot in the NCAA tournament's field of 68, were to be held in Albany, in the home gym of a conference rival.
So well before the postseason began, as his team cut a swath through its opponents, John Becker received a very blunt question from his players that he never heard before: Why couldn't we have hosted the league tournament?
The Vermont coach didn't have an answer that would satisfy his players. The truth was, some schools can afford to bid on the event and some can't. And the truth meant that the postseason deck was stacked somewhat against a one-bid league's best chance to make noise and truckloads of money in the NCAA tournament. And when the Catamounts lost to Albany on the Great Danes' home floor on Sunday, that bitter reality set in, even if a desire for drastic change did not.
“I do think it's important that we have a conference tournament. I do think it's great that the regular season champ is rewarded with an NIT bid,” Becker said. “It's the best situation. One-bid leagues, it's tough, and it can be cruel at times, because sometimes the best team doesn't advance to the NCAA (tournament). That's probably what makes it exciting, too.”
It makes for an intriguing debate. Regular-season champions of one-bid leagues have fallen regularly in conference tournaments this year, with Boston University the latest casualty on Wednesday, upended on its home floor by American after a 15-3 regular season in the Patriot League. Before that, Vermont, Davidson and Green Bay were each beaten. These events may add value for leagues rarely seen on television, but what does it cost them? And is jeopardizing a league's best chance to add to the madness of March a worthwhile tradeoff?
Per the website KPI Sports, Belmont, Davidson, Florida Gulf Coast, Green Bay, High Point and Vermont combined for 84-14 league records. They were 5-6 in their conference tournaments. The drop-off to the team earning the automatic bid, in some cases, has been negligible or non-existent. (American, for example, did go 13-5 in the Patriot League.) But without the best team over the long run representing a given league, those respective conferences have a diminished chance of reaping the benefits of a potential NCAA tournament upset. What's to be done? Not much, say coaches, but not nothing.
“I'm still in favor of conference tournaments,” Green Bay coach Brian Wardle said. “It's what March Madness is all about, it's what college basketball is about, it's the second season, it's do or die. It's one high-pressure situation that our student-athletes get in that they do look forward to.
“That being said, we have to reward the body of work where it's the whole regular season instead of a three-or-four-day hot streak, which is what the conference tournament is. Milwaukee is a perfect example. They got hot, they won, and I give them a lot of credit for that. There's always room for change. 'If it ain't broke, break it' is a phrase I always say.”
In the Horizon League, winning the regular season offers virtually no benefit; only six times has the No. 1 seed won the event in the past 12 years, and only twice has it won in the past six. Still, alternatives like canceling the conference tournaments or awarding the automatic bid to a regular-season champion even with a tournament seem unlikely. The leagues and the schools crave the television exposure a tournament brings. Coaches, meanwhile, are defined by bringing their teams to the postseason. A conference tournament offers a middling team and its coach a chance to boost their resumes. It's selfish, but it's reality.
The possibility of earning an automatic bid also allows a coach to keep his team interested. “Just because if you had some injuries in the regular season or didn't have the regular season you thought, there's still hope, there's still reason to get better,” Becker said. “The Ivy League is the one conference that doesn't have the tournament and it's hard to keep those kids engaged – if you lose a couple early in the regular season, your NCAA chances are basically gone.”
Even Wardle, now on the other end of it, concedes he retreated to pointing to the NCAA auto-bid in leaner times.
“In years past, that's what we always sold: It's a whole new season,” Wardle said. “It doesn't make a difference what we did in the regular season. All we have to be is better for two hours that night.”
There are ways to set up conference tournaments so that they are in favor of the top seed. One: Have every game at the home site of the higher seed, reseeding after the first round of games to ensure the most favorable match-ups for the best teams. Two: Have the tournament at a neutral site and give the top seeds one or two byes.
The first arrangement is how the Patriot League and NEC operate. And it is how the America East will operate beginning in 2015. No more semifinals for Vermont in front of a hostile crowd; if the Catamounts win the league title, the conference tournament will come through Burlington. “The way we're going to – that, or neutral site – is the best way,” Becker said. “That's the fairest way.”
A neutral site event could also be advantageous for a top seed. It could help eliminate distractions on campus and help teams keep their momentum going. Green Bay received a pass all the way into the Horizon League semifinals, where it waited a week to play while Milwaukee began humming.
In larger conferences, the so-called “double-bye” is merely a discussion point with no lasting resonance. Teams that receive those are getting into the NCAA tournament anyway. There's no such slack enjoyed by the Phoenix. “They play free and loose and they're hot,” Wardle said of teams charging into the semifinals. “They build momentum and you haven't played in a week and you're a little slow to start a game, like we were. That's not an excuse, but that's maybe a tweak.”
Still, Wardle knew that his team got a great set-up. Green Bay received a pass into the semifinals and was playing on its home court. It had thousands of fans in the stands. It had some rotten fortune with health issues for its two stars, Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes, and that was that. After the loss, Wardle left town to recruit in Chicago for two days to clear his head. He's not sure any of his players watched the Horizon League final, in which Milwaukee earned the automatic bid.
Green Bay might have been a No. 12 seed with a shot at an upset or two. Milwaukee might be a No. 15 or No. 16 seed and, as a result, likely out after a beatdown at the hands of a bigger-name team. It's a depressing scenario for the Phoenix, which hit every goal but one. “Green Bay is not sitting here today going shoulda, woulda, coulda, this is unfair,” Wardle said. “We knew what the situation was going into it. We knew what was at stake. And we didn't get it done, so bottom line, we have to live with that. That needs to motivate us.”
Championship tournaments aren't going anywhere. But leagues, like the America East, can be proactive and give their best teams the best chances to earn some notice and some money.
“That is the stress or the life of one-bid leagues,” Becker said. “We know. That's just how it is.” It doesn't have to be how it is, not exactly, as conferences move to protect the teams most capable of representing them.