True or false:
Basketball conference games exist only so ESPN has content to broadcast four nights a week in January, February, and early March.
Before conference play starts, inter-conference games and November tournaments sort out in rough form which teams should be in the Top-25 or Top-40. Some teams emerge as better than expected and earn some attention; some teams disappoint early and might actually need the conference schedule to tune themselves up.
Once conference play is over, almost any team qualifies for their conference tournament. Any team that gets hot at the right time can play their way to the conference championship, earning an automatic bid for the tournament. If two teams get hot in the same tournament, well, one of them loses out, unless they somehow impress the selection committee enough to earn an at-large bid to the tournament.
This logic doesn’t apply to the smallest conferences — not small in terms of membership, but in terms of stature. There are lots of conferences that routinely send only their conference champion to the tournament. In those conferences, conference play is all about seeding for the conference tournament; you’d rather be a #1 facing off against an #8/#9 winner than a #7 facing a #10 before hoping to face a #2 (or that #9 facing an evenly matched #8 before being fed to the #1). These conferences don’t often turn up on ESPN, although there are so many other ESPN-branded channels and other sports channels, they get some exposure.
But for “mid-major” conferences, those without major football teams but otherwise well established, winning the conference tournament isn’t essential; now that there are more than thirty at-large spots, it’s common for those conferences to get at-large bids for members with good inter-conference records or, rarely, surprisingly strong conference records. If you’re a close second to a team with a good inter-conference record, maybe that rubs off on you.
Still, the difference between finishing second in the Big 12/ACC/Pacific (8? 10? 14?) and finishing sixth in the conference round-robin isn’t that bad; you still have a good chance to make the 68-team tournament with a strong inter-conference record. Your largest concern is getting games close to home compared to playing two timezones away from home and maybe having to start in Dayton for a 11-seed play-in game. Play well in the conference tournament to show you’re still strong and you should be OK.
There are more at-large bids than automatic bids. Conferences can send six teams or more to the tournament. There have been years when three of the Final Four were from the same conference, and more than one conference has done that.
Imagine if there were only thirty-two bids. Oh, dear! That’s the number of automatic bids! Why, some years either Duke or North Carolina wouldn’t get in! OK, we’d better make it thirty-six or even forty bids and have eight play-in games: four for the eight weakest conferences and four for those eight at-large teams. Now the conference tournament becomes much, much more important. Kansas bombing out of the Big 12 tournament in the first round might now cost it a bid, not merely a better seed in the tournament.
Want to make the conference schedule more than just a seeding exercise for the conference tournament? Put in a provision: if there’s a clear-cut (no tie-breaker needed!) conference champion from the conference season, they get a game against the tournament champion if they don’t also win the tournament to get that automatic bid. That means conference tournaments would have to aim for Saturday completions, with Sundays reserved for those season-champion against tournament champion grudge matches. CBS and ESPN might have many, or they might have none. That’s excitement!
So, why have I been so ruthless in cutting down the size of the NCAA tournament? Because I hate one bad game forcing a team out of the tournament. Once the field of 32 is set, after those play-in games, make the tournament double-elimination! After a thirty-game season, surely making a team lose twice before they’re out isn’t unreasonable. It makes the date of the final game uncertain, but three of the major professional leagues (and their broadcast networks!) already deal with that. The NCAA even does that incrementally at some levels of the baseball and softball tournaments; rounds alternate between double-elimination and best-of-three. (An eventual champion could lose four games on their way to the championship — but they have to be spaced out accordingly.)
Don’t worry, “Cinderella” teams of destiny are still possible — they just have to peak a little higher sooner just to make the tournament and then be ready to beat any team twice, not just once, to get the championship.
Or, we can just admit that NCAA basketball conference games are just content for television networks, with some minor impact on seeding the conference tourneys.