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NCAA Tournament: Proposal for Horizon, Missouri Valley, and Mid American Conferences

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Head coach Brad Stevens of the Butler Bulldogs walks into the locker room after losing to the Connecticut Huskies in the National Championship Game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at Reliant Stadium on April 4, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
SchmolikCorrespondent IIApril 6, 2011

Hello, college basketball fans!

It's now two years in a row that Butler has made the NCAA title game. This year, however, their NCAA bid was in jeopardy until near the end of the season (at one point the Bulldogs were just 6-5 in the Horizon). I'm not 100 percent sure that had Butler been upset in the Horizon Tournament they would have even made the NCAA tournament.

In addition, Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference went 15-3 in conference, lost in the conference championship game, and were denied a bid to the NCAA's. They are the first MVC regular season champion to miss the NCAA Tournament in a long time.

As always, it is harder for mid-major teams to get at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. The usual "who did you beat?" argument hurts teams that just don't get the chance to play top teams and are often dragged down by bad opponents (especially if they lose to them).

The key difference between the power conferences and mid-majors is the overall level of competition. I have in the past proposed realignment of conferences to allow stronger teams to "move up" conferences. I have now come up with a really radical proposal without a massive realignment.

This proposal involves the Horizon League, the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), and the Mid American Conference (MAC).

Each team in those conferences will play every team in their conference just once. In addition, the 32 teams will be placed into one of four divisions grouped by strength and play all the teams in their division once as well. Conference opponents would play each other twice if they are in the same division and once if they are in opposite divisions.

Teams in the MVC and Horizon would play nine conference games and seven division games for a total of 16 games. Teams in the MAC would play eleven conference games and seven division games for a total of 18 games.

This seems to be a good compromise between maintaining the individual conferences but allowing for stronger schedules for the stronger teams (the NCAA at large bid candidates) and allows the weaker teams to play each other. For example, Butler would only have to play Youngstown State once instead of twice and instead get to play Northern Iowa. Youngstown State by contrast will get to play all its conference foes and weaker foes from the other conference.

To determine initial divisional placement, I took the winning percentage in conference over the past four seasons (courtesy of ESPN). The top eight highest winning percentages were placed in Division 1, the next eight in division 2, and so on. (Ties were broken by NCAA Tournament appearances).

 

Divisions:

Division 1: Butler, Kent State, Northern Iowa, Akron, Cleveland State, Wright State, Creighton, Miami Ohio

Division 2: Milwaukee, Western Michigan, Green Bay, Illinois State, Wichita State, Ohio, Indiana State, Drake

Division 3: Valparaiso, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Missouri State, Ball State, Bradley, Eastern Michigan

Division 4: Southern Illinois, Detroit, Loyola Illinois, Evansville, Northern Illinois, Illinois Chicago, Youngstown State, Toledo

 

Divisions By conference:

Horizon:

Division 1: Butler, Cleveland State, Wright State

Division 2: Milwaukee, Green Bay

Division 3: Valparaiso

Division 4: Detroit, Loyola Illinois, Illinois Chicago, Youngstown State

MVC:

Division 1: Northern Iowa, Creighton

Division 2: Illinois State, Wichita State, Indiana State, Drake

Division 3: Missouri State, Bradley

Division 4: Southern Illinois, Evansville

MAC:

Division 1: Kent State, Akron, Miami Ohio

Division 2: Western Michigan, Ohio

Division 3: Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Ball State, Eastern Michigan

Division 4: Northern Illinois, Toledo

After every two seasons, the divisions are recalculated based on data from the previous four seasons.

Here are the issues that have to be discussed:

1) Do division games count as conference games or only the single games in the conference? Would it be unusual for a conference to only play "nine" conference games? How would this effect the NCAA statistics on conference record/RPI vs. non conference record/RPI?

2) How would the conferences determine seeds for their tournaments? Would they consider only the conference games or conference + division games? If they use division games, they probably have to consider the strength of division as part of the equation (a 11-5 record from a team in Division 1 should be better than a 12-4 record from a team in Division 2).

But the overall result should be better competition for all teams in the three conferences. It also allows the stronger teams from each conference to build up their overall strength of schedule and improve their chances of getting an at large bid. This is kind of like Bracket Buster but on a grander scale.

I think this works out well for all three conferences.

This year, Butler had to play four horrible teams (based on last four years) and that sunk their RPI (and affected their seed). Under this proposal, they would only play those four once a year and then get to play better teams from the MVC and MAC instead. 

On the other hand, if a MVC or MAC team beats Butler it gives those teams an extra quality win. If Missouri State got to play some better teams, they would have had a better chance to get in.

If this doesn't work, I think a good move for the MVC is to invite Butler and for Butler to accept. Historically, the MVC is a better league and Butler would have a better chance at an at-large bid if they fail to win the tournament. They should also invite St. Louis as well (they seem out of place in the A-10).

I would love to see a mid-major team like Butler or Northern Iowa get an invite from one of the big conferences but we know those conferences care more about pigskin than hoops (Nebraska to Big Ten and TCU to Big East?). So the best way for these teams to get into the NCAA Tournament (outside of winning their conferences) would be to upgrade their level of competition.

If the idea works, maybe other conferences could form alliances as well (MWC and WCC, A-10 and Colonial, etc). Maybe even power conferences would jump on board. We could have the Big Ten and ACC combine and instead of Illinois playing Northwestern and Nebraska twice, they could play Duke and North Carolina (assuming they are in the "top" division").

At any rate, Butler has won approximately 86 percent of its conference games (62-10) in the past four seasons. They are being weighed down by the Horizon League. Whether it involves an upgrade to the MVC or A-10, something needs to be done. One of these years Butler is going to lose in the Horizon Tournament and not make the NCAA's and it will be a shame.

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