College Basketball: Why the NCAA Should Incentivize Regular-Season Titles

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
College Basketball: Why the NCAA Should Incentivize Regular-Season Titles
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This, college basketball fans, is what a missed opportunity looks like.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, five of the six major conferences had yet to determine an outright league champion.

Altogether, 16 different teams still had a chance to capture at least a share of their conference crown, with marquee showdowns like Duke-Carolina, Georgetown-Syracuse, Louisville-Notre Dame, Kansas State-Oklahoma State, Ohio State-Illinois and Indiana-Michigan all positioned to play some role in the impending drama.

If the NCAA was awarding proper weight to regular-season achievement, we'd be sweating through one of the great sports weekends of the year.

We aren't, though, and the reason why is obvious: Regular-season conference championships in college basketball don't mean diddly.

Sure, you get to cut the occasional net (ask Indiana how that went). And the bragging rights make for good discussion-board fodder.

But it's all just preamble for the conference tournaments to come, and that's a shame.

Not only does the current setup cheapen the considerable accomplishment of winning one's conference—replacing it instead with the lesser accomplishment of winning three or four postseason games—it further divorces the increasingly irrelevant college basketball regular season from its postseason overlord: March Madness.

It's high time the NCAA helped bridge that gap, and it could start by attaching actual incentives to regular-season achievement.

But before we address the "how," let's delve a bit deeper into the "why."

 

Identifying the Problem

In college basketball, there is a staggering dichotomy between the popularity of the sport and the popularity of its postseason.

As AOL columnist Clay Travis writes, "The American sports fan doesn't pay attention to college basketball outside of a stretch in March and the first week in April."

The numbers bear that out. While television ratings for the ever-growing 68-team NCAA tournament are at a two-decade high, regular season in-game attendance is on the wane.

In some ways, then, the sport has become a victim of its own success. The brilliant marketing and design of March Madness has rendered the regular season obsolete. Outside a niche group of hardcore fans and their frat-boy counterparts, college basketball is a three-week affair.

Wise to the burgeoning popularity of the NCAA tournament, most conferences have decided to create their own year-end, knockout-style competitions.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

These conference tournaments—which didn't become de rigueur until the 1990s—were intended as small-scale facsimiles of the March Madness experience. And to that end, they've been incredibly successful.

Unfortunately, they've had the same neutering effect on the regular season. With the exception of the Ivy League, every Division I conference now awards its automatic NCAA tournament bid to the winner of its conference tournament. And while that guarantees late-season drama and keeps the maximum number of fanbases engaged, it simultaneously de-emphasizes the two-month run of conference play.

But why can't we have it both ways?

Why can't we maintain the drama of conference championship week while also creating new drama around the pursuit of a regular-season conference title?

We can. Here's how.

 

The Plan

Let's first dismiss the idea of awarding automatic bids to the tournament and regular-season champion from each conference.

We don't need two representatives from, say, the SWAC, cluttering what is already a bloated tournament field.

Should regular-season conference champions earn automatic tournament bids?

Submit Vote vote to see results

That said, I'm not opposed to having multiple representatives from an accomplished mid-major conference. So let's create an incentive system.

Rule No. 1: Every conference that won an NCAA tournament game the year prior (not including play-in games) can award an automatic bid to the winner of its conference tournament and the winner of its regular-season title. If the same team wins both titles, it cannot be placed in a play-in game.

Rule No. 2: Every conference that won an NCAA tournament game in each of the past two seasons can award an automatic bid to the winner of its conference tournament and the winner of its regular-season title. If the same team wins both titles, it is guaranteed a top-eight seed.

Rule No. 3: Every conference that won an NCAA tournament game in each of the past three seasons can award an automatic bid to the winner of its conference tournament and the winner of its regular-season title. If the same team wins both titles, it is guaranteed a protected top-four seed. If a team wins the regular-season title but not the conference title, it is still guaranteed a top-eight seed.

Make sense?

The idea here is to reward conferences that consistently churn out tournament-winning teams. If your conference has a track record of tournament success, you potentially earn the right to more than one automatic bid.

Note: For the purposes of conference realignment, we'll say that a conference assumes the tournament wins of a team it adopts. So, for example, VCU's recent tournament victories count toward the Atlantic 10's total rather than the CAA's total.

 

How It Would Work this Year

If these rules were in place right now, the following teams would have already secured a bid in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Bucknell (Patriot League): Can avoid play-in game with tournament win.

Florida (SEC): Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Miami (ACC): Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Gonzaga (WCC): Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Creighton (MVC): Can avoid play-in game with tournament win.

Akron or Ohio (MAC): Can avoid play-in game with tournament win.

New Mexico (MWC): Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Belmont (OVC): Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Norfolk State (MEAC): Can avoid play-in game with tournament win.

Pac-12 Champion: Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Big East Champion: Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Big Ten Champion: Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Big 12 Champion: Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

Atlantic 10 Champion: Can earn protected top-four seed with tournament win.

With the possible exception of Norfolk State, I'd say all those teams are deserving of a place in the NCAA tournament. The possibility of Belmont earning a protected top-four seed might rankle some folks, but the OVC has a proven March track record, and the Bruins are among America's better mid-majors.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Now compare those minor concerns to all the late-season excitement this model would create.

We'd have Akron and Ohio jockeying for a bid. We'd have Saint Louis, New Mexico and Marquette gunning for a top-four seed. We'd have Creighton winning its way into the tournament with a victory over Wichita State on the final day of the season.

And all that would be the culmination of a meaningful regular-season schedule—two months of building action followed by a made-for-TV climax.

 

Your Turn

You can quibble with my execution, but the greater cause of instilling some meaning into the college basketball regular season is still a just one.

Among all the various proposals on this topic—many of which revolve around scheduling—there's no more straightforward fix than assigning an actual reward to regular-season conference championships.

Now I throw the question to all of you.

What changes would you propose?

Does my proposal go too far? Or are the incentives still too weak?

Leave your answers in the comment section below.



Note: I realize the NCAA doesn't have the unilateral ability to do all of this. For the most part, conferences have the power to determine how they award their automatic bids. But I'll assume the NCAA is at least in position to start this conversation.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

Out of Bounds

College Basketball

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.