Friday Feuds Vol. 1: Should Conference Tournaments Be All-Inclusive?
Welcome to the first edition of Friday Feuds! I am very excited to introduce to you House Enterprise's new premier column for sports debate, where we argue over some of the hottest topics in the world of sports.
To christen our virtual debate stage, I spoke with fellow hoops fanatic Jake Zimmer on whether or not postseason tournaments should be as inclusive as they are right now.
Sam's Opening statement:
Due to the pandemic, the NEC enacted a temporary rule for their conference tournament stating that only the top four teams will be invited to compete in the postseason tournament. In my opinion, I think this has produced an extra level of competition within the conference, and I think it would be a benefit to the NCAA going forward if conferences did not invite every team to their postseason tournament.
Jake's Opening Statement:
The NEC has been around for 30 years. Historically, they’ve invited every team. This recent decision comes at a time where the world is in shambles. Conferences need to adapt, and the NEC adapted by reducing their tournament this year to four teams. I think this is a catastrophic move for the NEC. With a conference that has 10 teams, and with how mid-major basketball operates in terms of gaining exposure, a lot of where these kids shine is in postseason tournaments. If this becomes a permanent deal, I think it will discourage a lot of kids from coming to these mid-major schools.
So I’d like to clarify my argument, while also pushing back on parts of yours. I do think that the NEC’s current model of four teams is drastic and should not be the norm outside of a pandemic. In terms of a detriment for the schools that wouldn’t get an invite, I think the only real major hit these schools will take is a financial one. Schools play in the conferences they play in for financial reasons; for the tv deals, for the exposure, etc. When you take that away, I don’t think it harms the competition as much as you think.
If you want an example, let’s look at the NEC. This year, we’ve seen some teams that didn’t start off so hot surpassing preseason expectations. Look at Wagner, they’re currently on a nine-game winning streak, 10-4 in NEC play, and they’ve pushed themselves from barely making the tournament to the top seed in the conference. Now, looking at the current playoff race in the NEC, there are around three teams in a very tight race for that last spot. While you might lose those lower schools that can make a miracle run, by creating that cut-off, you make every single game in the regular season count.
I get it. Right now, we’re in a weird position with this conference. Usually, the top 8 out of 10 teams make the tournament. If you don’t make the conference tournament, it’s a mark that basically says you suck, which is usually a fair assessment. This year, that’s been reduced to four, so six teams will not be playing. My mentality towards this move is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Every coach in the entire league, whether they’ve had success or not, love the idea that they’re going to be able to play and upset anyone for an NEC Conference title. Let’s take Bryant these last two years. They were a 8 seed and a 7 seed these past two years. Both years, they had to go out and play the St. Francis Red Flash. Bryant’s track record in Loretto has been atrocious under these past ten years. Jared Grasso has never won as a coach there. The last time he won a game there was as a guard at Quinnipiac.
It’s fair to say the Bulldogs have had their demons in Loretto, but for the past two years, that’s been their first round opponent. No one on that Bryant team is saying “oh man, we have to go play St. Francis on the road again where we haven’t won in ten years,” they’re saying “this is the place where anything can happen.” The goal on the mind is an NCAA tournament. If you ask any coach in the conference, their mindset is “let’s get out there and play some damn basketball.” Granted, there haven’t been many big upsets in the last few years, but there’s always that opportunity.
Let’s say the NEC comes out and says that for the next couple of years, they will be fielding a 4-team tournament for the next couple of years. If I’m a player, that might deter me from committing to an NEC school. I might go to another conference like the MAAC or the OVC where I know I can shine on a bright stage, where I can make a big bucket to go to the NCAA tournament. That’s what worries me the most, and that’s why I say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I think you bring up a good point in saying that a potential NEC recruit might be deterred by a 4-team format, but let’s say we have a guy coming into a mid-tier ACC school, like Wake Forest or Georgia Tech. That’s a 15-team Conference, and let’s say they make their tournament a 12-team tournament. Do you think that apprehension would still be there?
I really think it’s two different ball-games. With these low and mid-major recruits, they’re going to college to develop a couple of different things. They’re going to develop their skills, and they’re trying to get playing time.
When you step it up to the ACC-level, guys in those programs are looking to become professional basketball players. I’ll say 90 to 95 percent of them are going to become professional basketball players. For them, if the ACC says “we’re going to shrink our tournament down to 8 teams” (which they would never do, but I’ll play this game with you), I don’t think that deters anyone. Those players are there to go pro, and learn form guys like Coach K in the process.
Look at a guy like Jalen Johnson. He doesn’t want to go win an ACC championship, he wants to prepare for the NBA Draft. If you’re asking me, I don’t think Jalen Johnson would be doing anything differently. They just have different things that drive them than players in mid-major schools, in my opinion.
Let me bring up another point as to why this limited tournament format would be better for all conferences, but especially those mid-major schools.
In 2017, after the NCAA assumed control of the NIT, they repealed the rule stating that a team had to have a .500 or better record to qualify for the tournament. In the 2016 Patriot League, Holy Cross won the conference tournament with a record of 15-20, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. How was it fair for a school to earn a bid to the premier postseason tournament, when at the time, they wouldn’t have been able to qualify for the secondary tournament?
That’s a point I can agree with you on. Let’s say Sacred Heart gets in as an under .500 team this year; they go on a run and earn an automatic bid through the conference tournament. That opens up the conversation to questions like; do they even deserve to be there to begin with? Do they deserve it more than a team who could have earned an at-large bid? Does that ensure that only the strongest teams get into the tournament?
These are good questions, but in my opinion, I don’t think that’s necessarily a mandatory qualifier to get into the tournament. To me, it’s as simple as, if you’re hitting your stride at the right time, then you deserve a chance to compete in the big dance.
By that logic, if you believe all that matters is hitting your stride at the right time, why don’t we just adopt that model proposed last year to just have a season consisting of a 350-team tournament. There are 350 Men’s basketball teams in Division 1, we can’t find 68 teams that are over .500 to compete in the tournament? We have to settle for a 15-21 Holy Cross?
I get that. That’s why, laugh if you want, that idea had some merit to it. Coaches will all tell you that they didn’t even give it a thought, but subconsciously, they all considered it at least once.
By the way, who even came up with that?
It was the ACC Coaches. They came up with it, and when everyone who heard about it called it ridiculous, those same coaches turned around and played dumb as to who came up with it. That being said, if miracle runs are so important to you, shouldn’t we be a bit stricter as to who can make those runs?
Don’t get me wrong, I hate to knock on my Fordham Rams, but should Fordham, who’s 2-11 in the A-10, get that opportunity? Last year, they entered the A-10 Tournament with a 2-16 conference record, and won their first game against George Washington before the tournament was suspended due to Covid. If they continued that momentum and earned that auto bid, is that deserved? Should teams just sit on their hands all season and wait for the conference tournament to try and earn a bid?
I agree that it’s a stupid strategy, but if that’s their plan, then so be it. No team has that mindset, it’d be a stupid culture, but if that’s their prerogative, then so be it. Most teams are about the process so it’s unlikely to pan out like that anyway.
Even in a system that allows that, they’re fighting a major uphill battle. You bring up Fordham as an example. Fordham is in a conference with schools like Dayton, Saint Louis, VCU, and Bonaventure. For Fordham to go on a run like one that you describe, they’re going to have to beat at least two or three of those four teams. If they can do that, who’s to say they don’t deserve that spot? I’m not one to say they do, but I’m definitely not one to say they don’t.
Sam's Closing Statement:
While I think miracle runs are an important part of what makes college basketball great, I think you need to prove yourself for an entire season of basketball to make that miracle run. If conferences were stricter on who can earn those postseason bids, I think we’d see a major improvement in overall quality of play nationwide.
Jake's Closing Statement:
While there’s merit to being more selective in any playoff atmosphere, what I think drives players and coaches to win is to do it on the big stage. If that means a four-game run with a losing record to win the conference championship, then so be it. If that means having a miserable year and not winning until the end, then so be it. If a team can get hot at the right time, then they deserve that spot in the next tournament. Any reduction in a conference tournament is something that I will always be opposed to. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Do you think there was a winner in today's debate? Was there something both of our pundits missed? How open do YOU think conference tournaments should be? Let us know on Instagram or Twitter!