Thursday, February 4, 2010

No Tournament Necessary

One of the best college basketball games TigerBlog has ever been to - actually, let's call it one of the best sporting events period - was the 1993 Northeast Conference tournament championship game between Rider and Wagner.

Ho hum, you say? No way. Rider defeated Wagner 65-64 on Darrick Suber's length-of-the-court drive to beat the final buzzer. Suber and Wagner's Bobby Hopson turned the night into their own personal game of one-on-one as both topped 30 points, and Suber's winning basket was probably the most replayed highlight of Championship Week, which was a fairly new concept back then.

That's the beauty of the one-bid conference championship game. Both teams are going to be playing all-out every second, and you never know when a classic is going to break out.

Still, for TB, that doesn't make it worth it. Not at all. Had Suber's shot rimmed out, Wagner would have gone to the NCAA tournament, which would have rendered the entire Northeast Conference regular-season meaningless.

TB was drawing a blank on what to offer today, and while procrastinating, he found himself checking to see something on Bradley's website, whose athletic director Mike Cross used to work here at HQ. After that, TB went to see how Bradley men's basketball was doing in the Missouri Valley Conference, which took him to an entire page of Division I men's basketball standings.

It was while scrolling through that page that TB had a reminder of what his least favorite part of college basketball is, everywhere except in the Ivy League, that is.

As it is now February, college basketball is in the heart of its conference season, much like mid-to-late October college football. Unlike the autumn, though, most of these games are essentially meaningless.

Bradley is currently 6-6 in the MVC (11-11) overall. Of the 12 league games, five have been decided by five points or less, while a sixth was decided in overtime. In other words, like most leagues, the MVC is highly competitive.

A bounce here and there and Bradley's regular-season might look much different. And yet what does it really matter? The whole season comes down to the MVC tournament.

Rider's current league, the MAAC, has a fairly dominant Siena team that is 12-0 in the league and 19-4 overall. Iona is in second place, three games back at 9-3. But an off-night for Siena in the MAAC tournament will be disasterous: The Saints are 45th in RPI (and dropping) with a strength of schedule of 148. They would clearly be a bubble team without the league's automatic bid and probably on the wrong side of the fence. Would that in any way be fair?

Coastal Carolina in the Big South, Morgan State in the MEAC, Butler in the Horizon, Northern Iowa in the MVC, Murray State in the Ohio Valley and Charleston in the Southern are all leading their leagues by at least two games. Of that group, Butler and Northern Iowa are Top 20 RPI schools, so they would appear to be safe. The others? They are spending all of January and February proving they are the class of the league, only to have nothing to show for it come March if they lose in the tournament, probably to a team they've already beaten twice.

There are really only two types of schools playing truly meaningful games in terms of getting into the NCAA tournament (seedings are obviously another story): mid-level teams in power conferences and Ivy League schools.

One team playing for its NCAA tournament life every night is Northwestern, which beat Michigan Tuesday night to give the Wildcats a sweep of the season series for the first time since 1966-67. Northwestern's RPI is currently 61, but there are nine winnable games left on the regular-season schedule.

Northwestern is one example, but the power conferences all have teams like that.

The Ivy League? Well, is it fairly obvious to everyone now that there will only be one bid for the league?

Cornell, now ranked 25th in the AP poll and with an RPI of 36, is the clear favorite, but there are two undefeated teams in the league, Cornell and Princeton. The Tigers play at Harvard Friday night and Dartmouth Saturday night before returning home to host Columbia and Cornell the following weekend.

The best part about Ivy League basketball is the way the lack of a postseason tournament impacts each regular season game. There's such a sense of urgency in Ivy League regular season basketball, and TB has experienced it first hand for 25 years. It's often refered to as "the 14-game tournament."

How many great games has Princeton played on Ivy League weekends that have shaped races? How many years did Princeton play with one eye on the Penn score from a different site, or vice versa?

The great drama of the regular season would be lost completely if there was an Ivy League tournament. And for what? To get one game on ESPN?

Rider-Wagner was on ESPN back in 1993, and it was a big deal. Now, every league has any number of games of television.

The real way for a lower league to get noticed is to have its champion win its NCAA tournament game. To do that, you need to send your best team.

If Cornell goes through the next five weekends and comes out champion on the other side (or Princeton or Harvard or anyone else), then that team will have earned its right to take the league's best shot in the NCAA tournament.

TigerBlog would have an issue if it was any other way in this league. In the meantime, enjoy the next five weekends. It's pretty much a slice of college football in college basketball season, one that isn't being duplicated anywhere else.


Anonymous said...

"The best part about Ivy League basketball is the way the lack of a postseason tournament impacts each regular season game."

Yeah, and the WORST part is if you lose your first two conference games your season is all but over. A conference tournament that gives byes to the top two teams and then gives home court to the top remaining teams as the tournament went on would give everyone a reason to keep playing.

R.W. said...

Now that it seems likely that The Big Dance will expand to 96 teams in a year or two, and thus presumably include auto-bid spots for all of both tournament champions AND conference champions, how would you feel about the Ivy League adding a tournament?

For me personally, I'm pretty anti-NCAA96 and anti-League tournament; however, if the NCAA expands (which is pretty much out of everyone's control), I would no longer be opposed to adding an Ivy tournament as well.

As a side note, the saddest part (in my opinion) of expanding to 96 teams is the dimunition of the prestige that earning a tournament berth has had for 50+ years. I hate to think that in 2030, after 20 years of 96+ team tournaments, people look at the banners hanging in Jadwin and dismiss its 20+ tournament appearances and '75 NIT run as meaningless because the perception of those things will have faded with time.

Anonymous said...

The first comment is nonsensical. Let's say Princeton goes 14-0 in the regular season and loses to Yale on a fluke shot at the buzzer in the Ivy tournament semi-final. Hypothetical 5-9 Brown goes on to score an upset in the "championship" game. For Princeton, your season is over even though you were clearly the best team. And this supposedly makes more sense?

That tournament advocates base their arguments on "fairness" is also patently insane. The Ivy's round-robin format is the MOST fair way to determine a champion. Everyone plays the same schedule. Everyone has the same opportunity to win. Just win the games. If you don't, you don't deserve anything.