The Best Way to Go Dancing

Last weekend, I spent the last few days before the NCAA tournament like I always do: watching basketball for hours and hours, following conferences large and small from New York to Anaheim.

Only this time, I was at one of the conference tournaments with a real, live press pass for the first time covering the WAC tournament at The Orleans casino in Las Vegas. It would be the last chance to see some semblance of a rational, once-proud league before schools like Chicago State, Missouri-Kansas City, and Division II Grand Canyon University (the only for-profit school in the NCAA) joined the conference that Arizona, Arizona State and BYU founded, among others.

Coming in to the tournament, three favorites stood out: Louisiana Tech, Denver, and New Mexico State.
Three weeks ago, Louisiana Tech was ranked after piling up a 16-0 record and a 17-game winning streak. Denver had been playing some of the best offensive basketball of anybody in the country and had won 17 of 18 since New Year's Eve. New Mexico State, the defending tournament champion, was the only club to defeat each of the top two seeds and was led by waterbug guard Daniel Mullings and 7-5, 355-pound man mountain Sim Bhullar.

Louisiana Tech and Denver were the favorites to meet in the championship game, which would have been a rematch of the teams' last regular season game, in which the Pioneers won by 24, clinching a share of the regular season conference title. So it's easy to deduce who was the favorite to win the automatic bid.

Within a few hours of the quarterfinal round starting, that favorite had crashed out to 21-loss Texas State. The Pioneers never led and were helpless to stop junior Bobcats star Joel Wright, who scored 32 on 9-of-10 from the floor and hit 14-of-16 free throws.

The tournament, turned on its side a few hours prior, was completely flipped upside down when Louisiana Tech lost to another 20-loss team, ninth-seeded UT-San Antonio. The Bulldogs were dominated on the glass and fell victim to the Roadrunners' streaky shooting guard Kannon Burrage.

If you've looked at a bracket by now, you know that Bhullar, Mullings, and the Aggies won the tournament and the automatic bid. They were a deserving champion over the three days and have a better-than-zero chance of knocking off double Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis in the first round.

But did Denver and Louisiana Tech's regular season superiority deserve to be "rewarded" by making them play three games in three days at true neutral site?

This is a debate that comes up every year at this time. But in recent years, with more and more regular season games in mid-major leagues available on TV, and better statistics that convey a team's strong points and very specific style, the hardcore college basketball fan has more tools at his or her disposal. So we know that teams like Middle Tennessee and Stony Brook are far and away the class of their respective leagues, but also that they're more than just gaudy records, and probably deserve some sort of greater built-in advantage than just playing lower seeds.

It seems like there are almost as many ways conferences organize tournaments as there are ways to score on a basketball court. But the most common format is the one that regular season champions like Louisiana Tech, Long Beach State, and Niagara lost in: send all or most of the NCAA tournament-eligible teams in the league to one neutral site, where the No. 8 seed has to win the same or a similar number of games as a No. 1 seed that could have lapped the league by five games.

Then, there are campus site-only tourneys where every game is played at a higher seed. For a conference like the WAC, there might be a slight issue with travel budgets in geographically widespread leagues if San Jose State had to go to northern Louisiana on two or three days’ notice, with a trip to Utah State three days thereafter.

There are also weird hybrids out there, like the one that victimized Stony Brook. The Seawolves had to play a road semifinal at Albany, where the quarters and semis were being held, and lost just before they would have hosted the championship game.

But a third option is out there that encompasses the best of both worlds: a neutral site tournament that gives the top two teams in the conference a bye to the semifinals. It still allows the "madness" and "last chance to dance" aspects of the weeks of conference tournaments to play out, but rewards teams properly for their regular season work.

Take, for instance, this year's West Coast Conference tournament, played in the same Orleans Arena as the WAC. Loyola Marymount won a grand total of one conference game in the regular season. The Lions still had a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, but had to win five games in five days to do it.

LMU ended tripling its regular season conference win total in Vegas, but fell to a big second half by No. 1 Gonzaga in the semifinal. In the final, the conference's top two teams, and ultimately, its two NCAA tournament representatives played off in Saint Mary's and Gonzaga.

The Southland Conference, where WAC finalist UT-Arlington called home last year, employed a WCC-style bracket this season after the 15-1 conference record Mavericks of 2012 crashed out in a semifinal, their second of that tournament. This season, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State dominated the league. The tourney format changed so that the No. 1 and 2 seeds went straight to the semifinals and the number 5-8 teams had to win four games. The result was a deserved showdown between the Lumberjacks and Demons, with NSU winning.

You may be asking yourself if all this really matters. If RPI No. 192 Charleston Southern beats No. 293 Liberty, goes straight to the bracket and plays Duke or Indiana in the first (not play-in round, NCAA), they're probably still going to lose, right? Just know that conference's representative (and 2012 regular season champion) nearly beat a No. 1 seed.

If a conference isn't truly sending one of its best teams, the chance of madness goes down. And unless you're that obsessive about making your bracket the "perfect" one, no one should want less of March in for this week.

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