Stratton’s Stand: Conference tournaments need to be restructured 


Every November, 361 teams in college basketball on both the men’s and the women’s side suit up, knowing that they have a chance to make the big dance if they play their cards right. It’s unlike college football in that way, a sport where less than half of the teams at the FBS level have a legitimate shot at making the four-team playoff, soon to be 12-teams.  

The way CBB is structured is that there are 32 conferences, each of which gets to send a school to the NCAA tournament. This leaves 36 at-large bids that are given to what the selection committee determines are the 36 most deserving teams that didn’t get an automatic bid. In most conferences, the teams play roughly 20-game regular seasons against one another, and are seeded based on how they perform in that season.  

After this concludes, the teams enter a four or five day single elimination tournament, where the winner earns the auto-bid. Rarely does the first or second place team get more than a one game bye. This means that for teams from a conference that the committee sees as good enough to only earn one bid, a whole season of work boils down to three to four games, where success gets you a bye.  

Putting this into perspective, a team could go undefeated in a mid-major conference, then drop a game in the quarterfinals and all of a sudden they’re stuck in the NIT (the National Invitation Tournament where the best teams that miss March Madness go). There needs to be a change. There needs to be more of a reward for teams who do well in the regular season and incentive to do well. Because right now for teams in one-bid leagues, their only incentive is to do well one weekend of the year.  

The WCC has the right idea here. The way they have their tournament set up pits the No. 7 seed versus No. 10 and  No. 8 against No. 9 on day one. The winners of those games play the No. 5 and No. 6 seed on day two. After that, the victors of those contests play the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds on day three. After, there are four teams left, the top two seeds and those who escaped the gauntlet on days 1-3.  

That way, squads that performed during the 16-game season (in this case Gonzaga and St. Mary’s on the men’s side) are rewarded, only needing a pair of wins. The teams that finish in the bottom four have to win five games in as many days. This makes it an unattractive option to perform poorly in the regular season.  

The important thing about this method is that every team in a conference (sorry Chicago State and Hartford) can make it to the big dance from day one of the season until they lose in the conference tournament. There are no barriers for any teams, instead there are incentives to do well in every stage of the year.  

Another, simpler option is what the Ivy League does: the top four (of eight) teams qualify for the conference tournament and they duke it out from there. While I’m not thrilled with leaving out half of the teams in the conference, I do think this is a better option than what most conferences currently have. 

As it stands now in the Big East, No. 11 Georgetown, who finished the year, would’ve only needed one more win at Madison Square Garden than No. 1 Marquette who went 17-3 to earn the auto-bid. This is an issue. It would be much more appropriate for the Hoyas to need to win five games and the Golden Eagles two.  

Whether conferences go towards the WCC model or the Ivy, this is an important direction that college basketball needs to trend towards. Teams should be incentivized to perform in the regular season and get rewarded for it, which is why there needs to be an appropriate change. 

Leave a Reply