Monday, March 5, 2018

Champion-Worthy Decisions

By Jonathan Lowe

We're under one week from another NCAA tournament bracket being formed. Over the next few days, the remaining 20-plus conferences will decide which schools qualify with the automatic certification. I ended up watching some of the championship matchups that Sunday brought us. Two (Big Ten and Missouri Valley) were decided on neutral courts, while two others (Atlantic Sun and Big South) gave an advantage to the top seed left alive.

With more championship tilts to come, more teams, especially those from smaller leagues, will experience the joy of earning their ticket to the NCAAs. There's also the annual question that pops up from some college hoops fanatics. What's the best way to decide an entrant to the national tournament? Well, since all of the conferences have forgone the route of using the regular season champion as the candidate, let's look over the choices.

Neutral Site, All Teams

This is the most popular idea, especially among the larger conferences. This does provide a promise to those big-name programs that have underwhelmed from November through February ... you get one more shot at making your season. When the league landscape wasn't as broad or "swelled," these neutral sites were pretty good at staying, well, neutral. Now, that might not be the case. Sites rotate to help appease as many of the member schools as possible.

This year, the SEC is holding their tourney in St. Louis. Now, as a Missouri fan, I find it cool because more fans Black & Gold will have a short trip to cheer on the "M-I-Z" Tigers. But, logistically, really? When did any location in the Show Me State qualify as a hotbed of SEC fervor?

The biggest example of this comes from the Big Ten. Last year, all of the conference descended on Washington, DC for the annual event. This time around, they were able to secure the most well-known arena that this country knows. However, to play in Madison Square Garden, the conference had to play their tournament a week early. Living in Big Ten country, I can tell you that the oddity of it all struck a chord with many. Yes, Rutgers is now part of the league. But, even as Commissioner Jim Delaney alluded to, there may be limits to where a tournament should be held.

Neutral Site, Limited Field

It's the same concept as above, except that not every conference team qualifies. The Ivy League, the last stalwart from the regular-season champion era, has adopted this model. In my mind, maybe other conferences should do this. sure, there's too much money invested to go to that model, but might give some more impetus to perform better in the regular season.

Staggered Field

There are some conferences that reward the top teams by pushing them through all the way to the semifinals. This means less wear and tear to get to the tourney trophy. It also, though, brings up that age-old question of whether teams will be rested or rusty with such a layoff. Does a lesser team with a surge of momentum take advantage of the moment?

Home-Court Advantage For Better Seeds

This type of tournament also has some popularity among the smaller leagues. Sunday was a good example of that working for and against a squad. Radford needed a buzzer-beating shot to dispatch Liberty for the Big South crown. On the other side of things, Florida Gulf Coast made a good run with their home crowd behind them. However, they couldn't overcome a 60-point first half that guided Lipscomb to a first-ever bid for the school.

To me, this appears to be the most fair of the solutions out there. Playing on back-to-back days is only reserved for the early-season holiday and end-of-season conference tournaments. Heck, even the NCAA isn't as taxing. But, in my opinion, the biggest advantage in the sport comes from proximity. The passion of a home crowd is palpable in sport. I don't think it's more evident than in college basketball, where crowd noise replaces the piped-in music that is prevalent at NBA games. Teams use it. They feed off of it. They turn it into big wins and court storms. And, at tournament time, they can parlay that into a trophy and a bid.

There's no perfect way to decide what team goes to the NCAA tournament. Regular season champs don't generate the revenue. Any tournament setting can produce upsets that prevent the best representatives from stealing a win against a more well-established name in the game (bringing some notice to the whole of that conference). But there are ways to provide more regular-season weight for what turns out to be the more important, and joyous, week of the college basketball season.

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