Kentucky Coach John Calipari was blasted by several outlets last week for his ideas on changes to conference championship tournaments. Coach Cal proposed holding a pre-season or early season event in which each team was guaranteed a certain number of games in place of the end of season tournament.
Many columnists made this out to be that Calipari wanted the NCAA bid to be determined at the beginning of the season. Calipari was egregiously misrepresented in what he was proposing on several occasions. Therefore, before exploring the details and logistics of the idea, it is important to quickly hash out exactly what Cal’s idea entailed: a gathering in which each team was guaranteed three games. This figure was not set in stone, just an example to get the ball rolling. The meeting would not determine the automatic bid, but rather each conference would follow the Ivy League structure in which the regular season champ won the trip to the dance.
Now, before everyone’s heads spin, it is important to note what Coach Cal was generating: an idea. This was not a formal proposal to the SEC, nor was it something that the NCAA cabinet members will have on their desk next week in a 700-page document. It is an idea that Calipari put out there that is worth exploring as to whether or not it could actually work, or would be beneficial for college basketball, even though a proposal like this could help the Selection Committee become more consistent in choosing post season teams. But, before a subcommittee is put together to explore whether or not it is good for the NCAA, there needs to be discussion about whether or not it could even work.
When considering a change this major, the logistics should be the first thing that comes to mind. Can the schools commit to this? Can the venues be reserved? With the power that college basketball has, this should not be very difficult. Changing the date should not eliminate the school’s ability to make the trip. Having a few guaranteed early regular season games in one place would in all likelihood cut the cost of travel for many programs.
There are other things to consider, though, such as the additional early season events that are already in place. There is nothing preventing a team from doing the preseason conference tournament and then going out to the Maui Invitational in late November.
Another detail would be the deciding of the automatic bid to the Big Dance. The NCAA Currently gives one automatic bid to each conference. For most smaller conferences, this is the only chance to get in. Two things could be done: the regular season champion could get the bid or there could be a Conference Championship game between the top two. These are each outcomes that could be put together with relative ease. For the sake of argument, it could even be a conference by conference decision. At current point, the NCAA seems to fluctuate as to what it values in the selection process, so the elimination of the tournament could possibly eliminate some grey area of the criteria they use.
Now, the question becomes, would this be beneficial for the NCAA? Is this something that would elevate college basketball to a new plane as far as viewership and integrity of the game and season? It is an extremely complex discussion to have that contains a wealth of issues both large and small. The biggest obstacles are the ones that would need to be discussed first and as with anything, money talks.
These changes have the power to greatly help or hinder the constant revenue stream that is College Basketball. Corporate Sponsorships come in wide varieties for the conference tournaments as they currently stand and are a great impetus to continuing the status quo. Changing the time of year would put these preseason tournaments in competition with the Goliath that is the NFL and its understudy in College football. This would affect corporate money being poured into the sport, but how much is lost would take a significant amount of research.
However, scheduling could eliminate this problem by keeping games to days that football is not on. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights have no NFL games and a few NCAA games here and there. These games could get ratings with not many other sports on. Big Monday and Super Tuesday could turn into early season conference encounters. With reasonable certainty it could be concluded, if done right, that the sponsorship money would be down in comparison to end of year tournaments. The other side to this thought is that it would be up form typical early season money, which could mean that the loss is counteracted in a way.
Right now, there is not much significance put on the beginning of the season in college basketball. Teams face lesser opponents in hopes of being ready for the bigger fish in the sea. However, wouldn’t a better warm up for young players be to see the competition at its highest level first? If the season were opened this way, teams could have a good gauge of where they are at within their conference and know how they need to prepare, further intensifying regular conference play a month or two down the road. Old rivalries at the beginning of the season could make the beginning of the season much more watchable as well.
In fact, packing healthier competition into the beginning of the season would be excellent for college basketball and team’s attempting to strengthen their schedule. The team’s strength off schedule would rise and with the additional games against conference opponents there would be more separation between teams and less grey area. Currently the NCAA is not consistent in what they value. This change would force them to value the same thing for the whole field: the regular season. And some teams would have drastically different looks to their schedule.
Let’s take a bubble team like Florida. Their first ten games include “stellar” opponents such as North Carolina A&T, Vermont, Richmond, and Jacksonville among others. Replace one of those games with an extra game against Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and throw in some other SEC competition and we may be talking a different story about their tournament bid.
The same is true for Final Four participant and bubble team Syracuse. Many thought that this team should not have gotten into the tournament. Had they replaced games against Montana State, Colgate, Cornell, and Elon with something like Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami or even Louisville perhaps they would have been more than a shoe end into March Madness. This team would have greatly benefited from some changes in the early season format. These are just the possible benefits as scheduling relates to the beginning of the season.
In addition, when we begin to discuss the end of season issues, there are many coaches that complain about what the current structure says about the significance of the season as well as what the conference tournaments do to their teams. With the current structure, this undoes a whole body of work for those teams in smaller, one bid conferences. Teams in the MEAC, OVC and MVC could go undefeated or have great conference records and not reach the tournament.
Monmouth was a great case study for this. They went 17-3 in conference, 28-8 overall but they come from a conference that is typically one bid. After Iona won the MAAC tournament there was significant discussion about Monmouth as an at large contender. They didn’t get in. They did not get in because they did not win the last game. They even scheduled and beat Power 5 opponents, such as Notre Dame.
Now, there is something to be said about the spirit of March Madness that exists in Conference Championship week. A team like Holy Cross never could have made it into the tournament. That is a true showing of what the spirit of March Madness is, but is that what is best for the players, coaches and the sport as a whole? Coaches like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Calipari himself hate the conference tournaments because they are extremely stressful and draining right before the road to the Final Four begins. As insult to injury, sometimes the NCAA Selection Committee decided that the tournament doesn’t even matter. This was exemplified when a few hours after a decisive win over Texas A&M, Kentucky was seeded below the conference runner-up.
So right now it seems that the regular season is quite meaningless at times and the conference tournament doesn’t always help you either. So what’s the point? If money is the only thing keeping the current structure in place then it cannot be what’s best for the sport. Sometimes changes have to be made that will negatively affect the bottom line if it is the right thing to do for the players and coaches.
So, there is some depth and reality to the crazy idea that Cal proposed. This could actually happen and big conference coaches would be on board with it. But let us keep some drama at what would be conference tournament week. Let’s keep a Conference Championship game, much like college football. Send the top two teams in and reward them for their season of work but keep the integrity of the month of March. Heck, it could even be a conference by conference decision as opposed to an overall NCAA regulation.
Coach Calipari may not have solved the ongoing debate in college basketball that is conference post-season play. However, he has definitely created some much-needed attention to the idea and given college basketball fans as well as NCAA officials a realistic proposal to ponder.