The Case for Conference Champions

Jacksonville State, Iona, and South Dakota State are not household names when it comes to college basketball, but they are part of the reason why the NCAA tournament is one of sports’ greatest events. All three teams won their season-ending conference tournament and earned an automatic berth in what has become known as March Madness, the three-week dash to crown a college basketball national champion. The NCAA gives automatic bids to the winners of 32 conference tournaments, and then selects the remaining 36 teams based on a multitude of criteria including marquee wins and strength of schedule.

So, what happens to all of those conference champions who play poorly over a two-, three-, or four-day stretch and are eliminated from their conference tournament? Well, if you’re North Carolina and lose to Duke in the ACC tourney – as the Tar Heels did recently – it’s not much of a problem. Head coach Roy Williams and the 27-7 Tar Heels are a lock for an at-large bid. But, what about Monmouth, the regular season champion of the MAAC? The Hawks ripped through the regular season winning 27 games just like North Carolina. Monmouth went 18-2 in conference play but lost to Sienna, which tied for third, by four points in the MAAC tournament. Iona (22-12, 12-8) went on to win the conference tournament and earn the automatic bid. Oh, and Monmouth beat Iona twice during the regular season.

Is Monmouth’s regular season all for naught? It would seem so. A team that played extremely well over a four- to five-month period loses out on a trip to the field of 68 because it didn’t play well in the four-day MAAC tournament. The same holds true for Belmont, clearly the best team in the Ohio Valley Conference. If the Bruins’ name sounds familiar, it’s because they have made seven trips to the Big Dance since 2006. Belmont went 15-1 in league play and has the conference’s best overall record at 22-6. Like Monmouth, the Bruins were eliminated from the OVC tournament by eventual champion Jacksonville State, a team that finished third in the conference’s East Division. Belmont, which won the East, beat the Gamecocks (20-14, 9-7) twice by a combined 30 points during the regular season.

South Dakota State went 18-16 overall, 8-8 in Summit League play but upset top-seeded South Dakota by three points in the conference tournament. The Jackrabbits finished near the bottom of the Summit League’s regular season standings, yet they will represent the league in the NCAA tournament. South Dakota (22-11, 12-4), the only conference team with more than 20 wins, will likely play in the NIT.

If you are Kansas and get upset in your first conference tournament game as the Jayhawks did, you don’t have to worry. An at-large bid awaits teams with pedigrees like Kansas, North Carolina, and UCLA, teams that have all been eliminated from their conference tournaments. For mid-major schools, there is little reward for playing great basketball for an entire season other than a top seed in your conference tournament. Teams like South Dakota, Monmouth, and Belmont will have to be happy playing in an everyone-gets-a-trophy tournament like the NIT. The NCAA should reconsider how it deals out automatic bids and make sure teams are rewarded for their play all season long.