Of the 33 conferences in Division I college basketball, the Ivy League is the only one that awards its automatic NCAA Tournament bid to the regular-season champion. Every other conference gives its automatic bid to the postseason conference tournament champion.
So who is right? The Ivy League, or everyone else?
Last Friday, Cornell became the first team to punch its ticket to the Big Dance. By beating Brown 95-76, the Big Red wrapped up the Ivy League regular-season title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
How should conferences award their automatic bids? Like most difficult questions, different people will give you different answers. Here’s my take.
For the so-called “big six” power conferences, what they currently do makes perfect sense. At the end of each regular season, these leagues have a conference tournament, with the champion getting an automatic bid to the Tournament. These postseason conference tournaments are great for several reasons.
First, they are a terrific exhibition for the rest of the country. It lets everyone see the conference in action and see what the best teams have to offer.
Conference tournaments are also a great way for power conferences to get their NCAA Tournament teams ready for the Big Dance. These conferences hold their tournaments at designated “neutral’ locations, which is not much different than the NCAA Tournament.
Another reason why postseason conference tournaments are great for the “big six” leagues is that they give each conferences a chance to send one extra team to the Dance. These leagues will almost always send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, so awarding the regular-season champion an automatic pass would be redundant. The way it is now, if Boston College makes an improbable run and wins the ACC tournament, that is one more school the ACC gets to send dancing.
The “mid-major” conferences are a much different story. These leagues normally send only one team to the Big Dance. One view is that these conferences should all award their automatic NCAA Tournament berth to their regular-season champion. These teams certainly deserve to go to the Dance, so they should get the bid, right? Not so fast.
For fans, the first team you want to see in the Tournament is obviously your own. However, the second school you should want in the Big Dance is the team that has the best chance of winning a game, not necessarily the “most deserving” team. For a conference like the Patriot League or America East, having a team win a tournament game brings a lot of recognition and notoriety to not only that school, but also the conference as a whole. For this reason, sending the tournament champion to the NCAA Tournament actually makes sense.
Any team that captures its postseason conference tournament is playing well at the right time of year. They may not be the most deserving team or even the most talented team, but there is a good chance they have the best opportunity of pulling off an upset in the NCAA Tournament. For a mid-major conference, that’s a big deal.
As for Cornell, there is no question it is the class of the Ivy League. The Big Red are the best team, the most deserving team and the one most likely to win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
There is a lot to like about this Cornell squad. They have an experienced team (four senior starters), a legitimate big man (seven-footer Jeff Foote) and are great from beyond the arc (setting an Ivy League record for most 3-pointers in a season). They also have Tournament experience, having now made the Big Dance for the third consecutive season.
The question isn’t whether or not Cornell can pull off a first-round upset. The question should be how far Cornell can go. Sweet 16? Elite Eight? That may sound crazy, but this is a very talented team.
Cornell is an exception. The regular-season champion is not always head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the league. In most cases, the regular-season champion is a few wins better than the second- and third-place teams. That may mean they are more deserving of a trip to the Big Dance, but it doesn’t mean they have the best chance of winning a game. For the mid-major conferences, that’s what it is all about.