College Basketball Conference Tournament Primer: What is the Point?

Conference Tournaments are already under way in the Patriot League, Horizon League, and Atlantic Sun Conference.  If those conferences don’t catch your eye, just remember that Florida Gulf Coast University, the Sweet 16 Dunk-City Cinderella from last year is the #1 seed in the Atlantic Sun and primed to make a return to the Big Dance.  The West Coast Conference and Missouri Valley Conference tournaments begin tomorrow with the more recognizable names of Gonzaga, BYU and Wichita St. playing for auto-bids to the NCAA Tournament.  For the schedules and brackets of every conference tournament the interns at CBS Sports have you covered

The conference tournaments do not provide a lot of drama for a team like Wichita St.  The Shockers are the #2 team in the Country and are going to be a top two or three seed in the Big Dance even if they lose in the MVC tournament.  So what are they playing for?  A #1 seed, which would set them up nicely for a return to Final Four, just ask Gonzaga…oh wait, a  #1 seed didn’t turn out so well for the Zags last year when they lost to Wichita St. in the Round of 32 (as a Zags fan that witnessed that loss in person in Salt Lake it still hurts).  Gonzaga and BYU are both likely in as well as long as they reach the WCC final and as the #1 and #2 seeds respectively they should.  Really all they are playing for is whether they get a 7,8,9,10, or 11 seed in the Big Dance. 

The teams at the top of the “power conferences” (Big 10, Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, AAC, and Atlantic 10) don’t really have a lot to play for either when their conference tournaments start up next week, except for seeding, which depending on what analyst you listen to or read does or does not make a big difference.  The middle of the pack teams in those conferences sitting on the “bubble” are playing to get in, which does spice things up a bit but a reasonable fan of college basketball has to ask what is the point of these college tournaments?  Why not just give auto-bids to the regular season champions of each conference?  Those are both great questions.  I ask myself those same questions every March.  Here are my answers:

Question #1: What is the point of conference tournaments? 

The easy answer and really the only answer in the eyes of the NCAA, conference commissioners, and university presidents is money.  Money, money, money.  This is the answer to almost any question in sports.  At least that is the answer I would receive as a kid from my Uncle Ken.  Every time I expressed dismay with the way something was done in sports he would tell me the reason was money.  As a kid, I hated this answer, I still don’t like this answer, but it is the answer.  The first, second, and third points of having conference tournaments is to make money.  That is why they were created and that is why they are here to stay.  The Ivy League with all of its Princeton, Harvard and Yale tradition are the only hold-outs.  They award their auto-bid to the regular season champion.  But for every other conference, the extra ticket sales, merchandise and TV deals represent too much money to pass up.  College Hoops is a material girl living in a material world. 

For those of you like me that naively do not want to accept money as the only answer there are a couple other reasons that are more appealing to me and the average fan.  One is that the conference tournaments provide a nice appetizer of excitement before the real tournament starts.  In the small to mid-major conferences, most of which are perennial one-bid leagues, the conference tournament becomes a three to five game do or die for a birth in the Big Dance.  We love the do or die, win or go home in mentality in sports.  The higher the stakes the more drama and the more madness, which is what we want from March Madness right?  In the larger conferences the conference tournaments provide a chance for a dark-horse team that may have had a rough regular season to get hot and play themselves in the tournament.  I don’t necessarily like teams with .500 records getting in just because they chose the right three games of the season to play well but it is an inevitable by product of the conference tournament process and I’ve come to accept it. 

Also, this season it appears that there are not many at-large bids available for teams from the mid-major conferences, which means that winning these conference tournaments and getting the auto-bid may be the only way in.  In past seasons, conferences like the Missouri Valley, Colonial Athletic Association, Mountain West, and West Coast Conference have routinely gotten three to four teams in the Big Dance.  That isn’t happening this year.  Aside from San Diego St. and New Mexico, no one from the Mountain West has put together a solid at-large resume.  If UNLV or Boise St. want in, they are going to have to pull off some upsets and win the Mountain West tournament.  If anyone not named Wichita St. wants a bid from the Missouri Valley they are going to have to shock the Shockers and win the conference tournament.  For proof of the very small mid-major bubble this year check out ESPN’s Bubble Watch.    Eamonn Brennan does a great job prognosticating the “bubble” this time of year.  Scroll down to the bottom where he lists the bubble contenders from mid-major conferences and it is a very small list. 

Another obvious reason as to why we have the conference tournaments is it provides more basketball to watch.  This does tie into the whole money thing but I am not thinking about the additional money that ESPN is raking in during championship week.  I am just enjoying the extra basketball. 

  Question #2:  Why Not Award the Auto-Bids To the Regular Season Champions?

Again, the first and only real answer is money.  If the auto-bids were not awarded to the conference tournament champions there wouldn’t be a lot of interest in them and they wouldn’t make as much money.  That is the answer.  To award the auto-bid to the regular season champion would do more justice to the two month conference regular season and would rightly crown the champion of a two month marathon instead of the champion of a 3 day sprint.  But auto-bids to the regular season champion and conference tournaments cannot co-exist. 

What about giving two auto-bids per conference?  One to the regular season champ and one to the conference tournament champ?  It sounds great but in the event that the same teams do not win both the regular season and tournament titles that could conceivably give auto-bids to 64 teams (there are 32 conferences), leaving only four at-large spots in the 68 team field.  The odds of the two different teams taking the two different titles in every conference is very low but the “power conferences” like the Big Ten and ACC are never going to be ok with a system that would allow only two or three teams from their conference getting in the tournament while a conference like the America East gets two teams in.  They have a point and they have most of the power, hence the term “power conference.”   

So there you go, a primer to the men’s college basketball tournaments and little about why they exist and why they are not going away.  And because they are not going anywhere you might as well enjoy them and enjoy the madness. 



Posted by Hatch


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