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For a better March Madness, give automatic bids to regular season conference champs

March 11, 2019
NCAA Men's Basketball-Campbell at Georgetown

The Washington Post

There's a sad situation in college basketball that many casual fans aren't aware of, and probably never will be. This week, two of the greatest scorers in the sport's long history were knocked out of their respective conference tournaments, and instead of staging their farewell performances in the NCAA tournament, in front of a rapt national audience, they'll be going out in the NIT, watched by approximately no one. Chris Clemons is a senior at Campbell, and he's currently fourth on the all-time Division I scoring list with 3,193 points. His team clinched the regular season title and earned home-court advantage throughout the Big South tournament, but were eliminated by Gardner-Webb on Friday. Mike Daum is a senior at South Dakota State, and sits ninth on that same list with 3,042 points. Like Clemons, his team secured the regular season conference title, and like Clemons, his team was eliminated in the conference tournament on Friday night.

Clemons and Daum are two of just ten players to eclipse the 3,000-point mark in D-I hoops, and though it's never wise to throw the word "deserve" around in sports, the fact that their respective teams proved themselves over the course of a long conference schedule makes it appropriate—they deserve to play in the big dance, and we deserve to watch them.

The problem, of course, is the institution of the conference tournament itself, a mini-March Madness known as "hell week" that gives small schools like Campbell and South Dakota State their one and only chance to avoid the anonymity of the NIT. In bigger conferences like the ACC and Big Ten, a good regular season is good enough, and a loss in the conference tournament, while it might knock a team down a seed or two, isn't the same brutal thunderdome where victory or sudden death are the only options. In leagues like the Big South and the Summit, though, the conference tournament is so significant, and so loaded with pressure, that it basically renders the regular season meaningless.

It lends quite a bit of drama to the week and change before Selection Sunday, but that doesn't mean it's fair or right. It's neither, actually, and the smaller conferences themselves realize this. Some have tried to mitigate the injustice in a few different ways, either by granting the top seed home-court advantage throughout the tournament, or by giving the best teams byes into the semifinals. The Ivy League held out for a very long time, awarding their automatic bid to the regular season champion, but the allure of a conference tournament proved too great, and they joined the rest of the herd in 2017.

Now the conference tournament is ubiquitous, and it creates a big problem: We're not seeing the best teams in March Madness. And as we see with Clemons and Daub, it's often the case that we're not seeing the best players.

No matter how the mid-majors stack the deck in favor of the higher seeds, the fact is that staging a high-stakes single elimination tournament to decide which team receives the automatic berth is going to result in upsets—lots of them. The best team, as measured by regular season success, will lose a good chunk of the time. Let's look at Campbell's Big South as an example—in the last 10 years, the team with the top seed as measured by regular season record has won the tournament just twice. In South Dakota State's Summit League, the top seed has fared better, but has still won just five of the last ten tournaments. Comprehensive stats are hard to find, but I would guess these numbers hold up across the board, and the regular season champion wins less than half the time.

What does that tell us? Simple: Winning the regular season in a mid-major or small conference gives you less than a coin flip's chance to make the NCAA tournament. Further, this fact alone is enough to confirm that a conference tournament is not a fair test—it's easy to say that each team controls its own destiny, but over time, the accumulation data shows that the deck is stacked against the best team, even when accounting for superficial advantages. Shouldn't the regular season count for more? Hell, shouldn't it count for something?

Now, back to reality—this is never going to change. Conference tournaments are money-makers for the little fish, it gets their teams on national television, and as the Ivy League proved in 2017, there's no holding out. The argument you just read is the blog equivalent of tilting at windmills, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. The NCAA tournament itself is already one of the most capricious playoff systems in sport, and while it stands as a glorious, nail-biting anomaly, the barrier to entry should not be another fluky roll of the dice. Watching a good cinderella topple a powerhouse in March Madness is magic; watching a bad Cinderella topple a good one a week earlier is just pointless. The conference tournament system keeps good teams out, diminishes the quality of play in the big dance, and is generally a rotten way to treat some of the best smaller teams in the country.

Second-Biggest NCAA Basketball Gripe of the Week: Bogus Injury Reporting

North Carolina v Duke

Streeter Lecka

(Dwight Schrute voice)

FACT. Zion Williamson suffered a grade 1 knee sprain on Feb. 20.

FACT. It was diagnosed as such a day later.

FACT. A simple Google search tells us that the best-case scenario is two-to-four weeks.

(End Dwight Schrute voice)

So why, for God's sake, did Duke play with the emotions of its fans by insisting, right off the bat, that Zion was "day-to-day"? He wasn't day-to-day! It was always absurd to imagine, for example, that he'd be ready for the Syracuse game three days after he got hurt, or the Virginia Tech game less than a week later. But there really wasn't a chance that he'd be ready for UNC this past Saturday, either, since we're still inside that two-week period, even though Coach K was leaving the possibility open until the day of the game. Now, it looks like he might come back this Thursday for the ACC tournament, which is—you guessed it—almost exactly two weeks after the initial injury. Shock!

So what gives? Why not just say he's done for the regular season? Is it to mess with other coaches, so they can't plan with any certainty? Is it just Belichickian secrecy for its own sake? Either of these rationales strikes me as silly, and worse, keeping the fan base on tenterhooks is just insulting. If he's done, tell us he's done, and let us mourn accordingly. Down with dishonest injury reporting!!

Your Extremely Fun Cinderella of the Year: Wofford

Hey, how about some positivity in here?? Wofford is awesome, they have four guys who can shoot the lights out, and if they don't win their conference championship, I'm going to burn down the entire state of...(checks where Wofford is located)...South Carolina. Check out their fans:

And more importantly, here's Fletcher Magee, who is seven three-pointers away from setting the NCAA Division I career record, and who took over the all-time lead in the Southern Conference from a fella you may have heard of named Stephen Curry:

If this man doesn't play in the Dance, I give up.