There are 32 automatic bids to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Prior to this year, 31 of those went to champions of Conference Tournaments, with one bid going to the regular season champion of the Ivy League.
That’s no longer the case. The Ivy League stages its first-ever Conference Tournament this weekend at one of the cathedrals of College Basketball, the Palestra in Philadelphia the long-time home of Philadelphia’s famed Big-5 basketball. It’s unclear exactly why the Ivy League decided to abandon its long held tradition of sending its regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament in favor of a Conference Tournament, but I’m certain that money and attention had something to do with it.
The Ivy League’s championship game will be played on Selection Sunday and be televised by ESPN2. In the past, most Ivy League games didn’t rate much more than a regional broadcast in the Northeast corridor where the conference is based. Usually the first time you’d hear from any Ivy League team is when it would be winning a first round NCAA game. There have been years when two teams would tie for the Ivy League’s title forcing them to play a one-game playoff for the championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA’s, but even that game struggled for attention on a Saturday night opposite the Big-12 and ACC title games.
There seems to be some school of thought that the Ivy League is taking this on a year-to-year basis as to whether it’s a good idea. But, I think once you jump into a conference tournament there’s no going back. And, unlike some “one-bid” leagues, the Ivy has taken steps to protect it’s best teams. Only 4 of the 8 teams make the post-season tournament. It will be interesting to see if the Ivy League’s first-ever tournament puts the pressure on its regular season champion, Princeton. The Tigers have not lost a league game in the Ivy’s round-robin format (a lost art in the age of the 14 and 15 team leagues) going 14-0. In a typical year, they’d be able to relax and get ready for round one of the NCAA Tournament. This year, they’ll face Penn in the semi-finals. The Quakers are 6-8 in the league, but have one decided advantage in that the Palestra is their home court.
The other semi-final matches Harvard, 10-4 in the league against 9-5 Yale, which won the league last year and pulled a first round upset in the NCAA Tournament. Already, in March, regular season champions from the Ohio Valley (Belmont), MAAC (Monmouth), Summit (South Dakota), and UNC-Greensboro (Southern) have lost in their respective conference tournaments. Those schools will get to play in the post-season NIT, but there’s no way you will ever convince your players that the NIT is the NCAA. You’ll get a good example of that this Sunday when you see the disappointment from Illinois State getting passed over for the NCAA Tournament and being compelled to play in the NIT.
The Ivy League was the last holdout and one of the last three conferences to embrace the idea of a post-season tournament. The PAC-12, then known as the Pac-10, first experimented with the idea in 1987 holding it’s first ever conference tournament at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. The PAC-10 staged its conference tournament until 1990 and then put it back on the shelf until 2002 reportedly due to poor attendance.
In 2002, the tournament returned thanks in part to a contract with CBS to televise the Championship game. The tournament played for 10 years at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, before the PAC-12 got smart and put the tournament at the MGM’s Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. This year, the tournament stays in Vegas but moves to the brand new T-Mobile Arena at the end of the Las Vegas strip where it will be for at least the next three years. Vegas is geographically situated in a good place for the PAC-12 if you exclude the northern most teams in Washington and Oregon, but the city offers plenty of entertainment options outside of basketball (and trust me when I tell you that the Utah Mormons love Vegas), and with a television contract with FOX, ESPN and its in-house PAC-12 Network, this tournament isn’t going anywhere soon.
Ditto for the next to last holdout, the Big-10 conference. The Big-10 first played a post-season tournament in 1998 and since then has alternated it between Chicago’s United Center and Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But, this year the Big-10 gets a new location holding it’s tournament 6 blocks from the White House at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. as a ode to Maryland which jumped from the ACC to the Big-10 several years ago. Next year, as an ode to one of the conference’s bottom feeders Rutgers, the Big-10 moves its tournament to New York’s Madison Square Garden but it comes with a hitch. Because MSG has a long-time conference tournament tenant in the Big East, the Big-10 will play its tournament a week earlier to avoid the conflict.
Crusty old former Big-10 coaches like Bob Knight at Indiana hated the idea of a Big-10 tournament, but he’s no longer coaching and this tournament certainly isn’t going anywhere thanks to a little something called cash. Since the Big-10 began playing a conference tournament, CBS has televised every semi-final and championship game. The network just re-upped its deal with the Big-10 this year paying $10 million dollars for the rights to select regular season games and the semi-finals and finals of the conference tournament.
Five times the conference tournament winner has made the final four, but only once has the conference tournament winner won the NCAA Title when Michigan State did so in 2000. Ironically that was the last time the Big-10 won an NCAA title. Michigan State has the most conference tournament titles with 5. Ohio State has won 5, but one was vacated due to NCAA violations. Of the original Big-10 schools, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State and Indiana have never won the conference tournament. Of course, newcomers Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers have never won the tournament, but of the original Big-10 schools, only Northwestern has never made the championship game and if there is a very that’s going to change, this is it.
As I’ve said before, we can debate whether these conference tournaments are a good thing or a bad thing all day long and there are sustainable arguments on both sides. To some it devalues the regular season and yes teams like Belmont and Monmouth do get penalized when they lose in their respective conference tournaments, but the solution to that is don’t lose. Most college basketball programs are judged by what they do in March. One bid leagues like the Southern and the MAAC understand that by playing a conference tournament, they’ll get their one night on national television and there’s nothing wrong with allowing those schools that go through the season largely anonymous to feel their own version of the Madness because their chances of winning an NCAA title are slim to none and slim just left the building.