Every year, basketball conference tournaments bring surprises. Sometimes so much so, upsets steal bids away from deserving teams.
You’ll hear the top college basketball analysts argue that there seems to be little value on the regular season with conference tournaments providing automatic bids to postseason league tourney champs.
In NCAA Division II, the NCAA Tournament selection process an even finer line. With three leagues in the NCAA South Region fighting for eight spots in the NCAA Division II National Tournament, there’s little wiggle room if teams don’t win their league tournament but are considered a bubble team. Each of the three tournament winners from the Sunshine State Conference, Gulf South Conference and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference are awarded NCAA Tournament berths.
If one to three of those league tournament winners isn’t the regular season champ in the league, bids are stolen. Some argue why play the league tournaments if it doesn’t give teams a chance to play for something? The natural response to that is, why play the regular season then? Why not just play the league tournaments?
The body of work over the course of the regular season would appear to be a better indication of deserving NCAA Tournament qualifiers. Take for example the South Region and its three regular season champs, and the final regular season region poll.
In the Sunshine State Conference, Florida Southern won the regular season title. The Moccasins, ranked number one in the South Region poll, drew a bye into the semifinals of the SSC tournament. Teams like Barry University, ranked number four in the South poll, and Rollins, ranked ninth, finished fourth and fifth in the league, respectively. Those two schools had to win four games to win the postseason tournament. Meanwhile, the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the SSC only had to win three games to win the league tournament. With those facts presented it make it hard to figure out how that is possible.
Saint Leo, the second-place team in the SSC, is ranked third in the South Region behind Delta State, the top team in the Gulf South. Delta State is number two in the South poll. West Alabama and North Alabama, the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams in the South, are the second- and third-place teams in the Gulf South. Fort Valley State, the top team in the SIAC, is ranked seventh in the South poll. Tampa, who earned the number three seed to the SSC tournament, is number eight in the region poll. Tuskegee, the winner of the SIAC West Division regular season, is ranked number ten in the South poll.
So there’s the teams that figure in as March Madness enters the final weekend of play before Sunday night’s 10:30 p.m. NCAA Division II Selection Show.
Here’s the rub: If Florida Southern, Delta State and Fort Valley St. all don’t win their league tournaments, there could be a problem. Chances are at least two out of those three are going to the NCAA Tournament regardless, possibly all three. That would mean three additional bids of the eight allotted in the region will be eaten up by some other team. If all three of those bids come from teams outside the Top 10 in the South Region poll, there would be two at-large bids remaining if that scenario plays itself out. Then we would have a serious problem.
That would mean even teams like Saint Leo, if neither it or Florida Southern won the SSC postseason tourney, could be in jeopardy of earning an at-large bid. Yet the Lions could be left out after winning 22 games in the regular season.
Let’s look at Barry’s case. The Buccaneers won 19 games, beating two nationally-ranked teams, including then-No. 6 Florida Southern and No. 13 Livingstone, but since the Bucs weren’t the SSC regular season champ, and therefore lumped into the middle of the South Region poll pack, without a league tournament title, even it will be sweating come Sunday’s Selection Show.
The NCAA and its selection committee should seriously look at how automatic bids are awarded for the NCAA Tournament. Even at the NCAA Division I level. When a 13-15 team gets hot over a three- or four-day span and takes a bid away from a 20- to 22-win team, that’s not right. That only tells teams there’s not much value placed on the 26- to 30-game regular season.
Bob Knight, the legendary former Indiana coach now serving as an ESPN broadcaster, had a sit down with Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall within the past week. Marshall coached the Shockers to the Final Four a year ago. This year his team ran the table in the regular season, going 31-0. Marshall told Knight, who is not in favor of the league postseason tournaments, he believes the regular season is a more true indication of a team’s body of work.
Come the NCAA Division I Selection Show next weekend, Dick Vitale and other top college basketball analysts will be screaming about teams that got left out. A lot of that could be avoided without the automatic bids going to the league tournament winners.
League tournaments should be used to give Bubble teams a chance to play themselves in by winning a few more games, and — of course — generating revenue.
Come the next few Sundays when the NCAA Division II and Division I basketball tournament fields are revealed, some deserving team is going to be left out, hence weakening the national tournament.
That’s just not good for college basketball.
NCAA South Region Poll (As of Mar. 5)
1. Florida Southern 24-4
2. Delta St. 23-5
3. Saint Leo 22-7
4. Barry 19-8
5. West Alabama 17-9
6. North Alabama 19-9
7. Fort Valley St. 20-8
8. Tampa 18-8
9. Rollins 14-13
10. Tuskegee 15-11