by Neil Morris
Yes, top-seeded Miami and Duke are the odds-on favorites. But unlike the top-heavy tourneys of yore, at least five teams—including North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia—enter this weekend with a realistic hope of winning the ACC conference crown.
But no matter who cuts the nets down this Sunday, more ink will again be spilled chronicling and diagnosing the ongoing erosion of the college basketball conference tournament. Whenever articles are written on this subject, however, the true objects of lament are really the major conferences. Small and mid-major tournaments are thrilling as ever, as schools in the Ohio Valley or Big South tournaments aren’t just playing for conference glory; they’re fighting for their one shot at the Big Dance.
While major conference tourneys continue to publish capacity attendances, actual turnstile figures and the basic eyeball test tell a different story. The ACC released sold-out attendance figures for the 2010 tournament in Greensboro, but the average turnstile number per session was only 15,690. Despite changes in ticket allocation between the member schools beginning in 2011, empty seats pervaded Philips Arena in Atlanta throughout tournament weekend last year, particularly the perennially poorly-attended Thursday sessions.
The wane in interest for major conference tournaments has many mothers, from widening choices in the overall sporting landscape to recent economic ebbs. But when it comes to mere attendance, conference expansion is the principal and, I’m afraid, unsolvable cause. Until 1991, the geographic reach of the entire ACC was 650 miles, from Atlanta, Ga. to College Park, Md. And no school was more than a five-hour drive from Greensboro, N.C., which this year hosts its 24th ACC Tournament, the most of any city.
The admission of Florida State altered that regional continuity. Excluding Virginia Tech, seven of the eight schools added since 1991 or scheduled for admission the next two years are over 400 miles from Greensboro. Of those seven, the closest is the University of Pittsburgh (approximately 425 miles) while the farthest remains the University of Miami (over 800 miles).
It’s folly to expect fans and students from schools that far away—particularly those that aren’t traditional college basketball hotbeds and especially those with losing records—to travel en masse to watch a conference tournament. And the more the ACC expands, the more the tournament ticket allocation will be spread among faraway members, further stunting actual per session attendances.
That said, major conference expansion is an inextricable reality, and absent (or even regardless of) radical changes to the composition and/or venue(s) for conference tourneys, the attendance slide will persist.
However, the true battleground is general interest level and, more specifically, television ratings. Hype is what once sparked an annual outbreak of the blue flu among schoolchildren on ACC Friday, and it’s what prompted the ones who dragged themselves to school to beg their teacher to wheel a television into class. Hype is what made the tournament results and championship matchup topics mentioned from the pulpit at some point during Sunday morning worship service.
Yet hype, too, has waned, and in a world of media saturation, online streaming and assorted technological advances, it’s the quality the major conference tournaments need most to recapture. But hype deficit isn’t the exclusive province of schools with losing records; indeed, sub-.500 teams were part of every ACC Tournament during its heyday. Rather, the public is taking many of its cues from the upper echelon of the major conferences, from high-profile, accomplished coaches like Roy Williams, John Calipari and others, who argue that the crucible of a 3-4 day conference tourney runs counter to success in the looming NCAA Tournament. Indeed, some enterprising journalists argue that with NCAA Tournament expansion, the conference tournament is an antiquated relic that should be discontinued or deemphasized.
This viewpoint runs counter with the traditional role of the postseason conference tournament, even today: an avenue toward the national championship. Every D1 college basketball team has an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament by winning their conference tournament, thus giving them a theoretical shot at the national championship (unlike college football). It’s also what makes any notion of further expanding the NCAA Tournament seem superfluous: in essence, the conference tournaments are the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s in that vein that I propose one rather modest change that would heighten the hype level for major conference tournaments without wholesale changes in their format, composition or location. Better yet, it’s a change that the conferences themselves wouldn’t have to make, but instead only the NCAA Tournament:
Only a conference’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament is eligible to be a No. 1 seed.
For all intents and purposes, this means that in order to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a team must win its conference tournament. The rule leaves room for the Ivy League—which does not have a postseason tournament—and any other conference that chooses to award its one automatic qualification to its regular season winner.
This change would inject heightened intrigue and excitement into the major conference tournaments. No longer could top-level teams and their coaches coast through the tournament with an eye already cast toward the following weekend. Winning and losing would carry more tangible consequences, including the opportunity to thwart a potential rival since only one team per conference could qualify for a top seed. In addition, fans and the media would closely follow the outcomes from other conferences to see which top-seed contenders are advancing or falling by the wayside. Of course, winning a conference tournament wouldn’t entitle a school to a No. 1 seed; it would only qualify them for selection.
Imagine at this year’s ACC Tournament Miami and Duke duking it out—either directly or indirectly—for possible No. 1 seeding. Or if both lost, how that might open up opportunities for Georgetown, Michigan, Kansas, Michigan State and even Florida should they win their conference tourney. Indeed, years of parity like the one we’re witnessing make this change even more useful: entering postseason play, 18 teams in the AP Top 25 have 5-7 losses and only two have four losses.
The most predictable of the inevitable objections to this change is the one most often used as a basis for deemphasizing postseason conference tournaments even in their current form: the need to protect the sanctity of regular season success. This is partly based on the widely held assumption that conference tournaments winners are already depriving regular season champs of their just reward. However, over the past 10 years, 32 of 40 teams selected as No. 1 seeds (80 percent) won their regular season conference title. On the other hand, only 25 of 40 No. 1 seeds (55 percent) won their postseason conference tournament, and all but four of them were also regular season winners. Yet, of the six No. 1 seeds that won the national championship the past 10 years, three were at-large selections and three were automatic qualifiers.
Indeed, the same percentage of conference regular season champs and postseason tournament winners won NCAA national championships over that 10-year period (60 percent). And while 24 of 40 Final Four teams during that same time won their conference regular season, 20 of 40 won their postseason conference tournament, a difference of only 10 percent. And that gap becomes negligible once you consider the higher rate of regular season champs traditionally bestowed with No. 1 seeds and the easier path through the tournament that comes with it.
So, statistics don’t necessarily bear out the superiority of regular season success. But even with this change, regular season standing will still influence the entire postseason tournament process, including which teams and how many games you play along with where you play them. And if a potential No. 1 seed falters in their conference tournament, their “punishment” is a No. 2 seed.
Moreover, there’s an inherent disconnect in the argument that seeding one postseason tournament shouldn’t be based in any way on the results of other contiguous postseason tournaments. Without going back to the days where only conference tournament winners qualified for the NCAA Tournament—something few want, including me—this change represents the next best thing to recapturing the cache of major conference tourneys.
Now, if only we could just figure out how a cheaper, faster way to get to the Triad from South Bend, Ind.