College Basketball's Conference Tournaments: To Play or Not to Play?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 24, 2021

Gonzaga's Drew Timme
Gonzaga's Drew TimmeYoung Kwak/Associated Press

The start of the 2021 men's NCAA tournament is barely three weeks from today, and as things stand, all systems are go. The whole thing will be held in the state of Indiana, and the days of the week on which the games are scheduled to be played is a bit different than usual, but it looks like we're going to get an NCAA tournament this year.

What will happen on the conference tournaments front is significantly less certain.

On Feb. 12, the selection committees for both the men's and women's NCAA tournaments announced that each conference has until Feb. 26 to decide how it will determine who receives its automatic bid to this year's Big Dance.

That's this coming Friday, to be clear, and all we've really heard thus far were the rumblings last week that both Gonzaga and BYU were considering not playing in the WCC tournament, per John Canzano of The Oregonian.

Based on the rapidly declining national rate of COVID-19 cases*, our guess is that most, if not all of the 31 conferences will opt to proceed as planned by letting a conventional, full conference tournament determine its champion.

*Per the New York Times, the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases when the 2020-21 season began was greater than 176,000. That average peaked at just under 260,000 on Jan. 8 and has plummeted to just below 67,000 as of Feb. 22. That's a decrease of nearly 75 percent in six weeks. If the leagues were fine with playing regular-season games when the numbers were that high, they'll presumably try to play conference tournaments now.

But there are many flies in the ointment the various conference commissioners need to consider, the biggest of which is the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak at a conference tournament.

Because even though case numbers are improving, we are still very much in the middle of a global pandemic. And in addition to wanting to keep their players and coaching staffs healthy, the commissioners are well aware that the NCAA has no intention of postponing games to accommodate teams who have a couple of players unavailable or, worse, are forced to go on a pause.

If you're the commissioner of a smaller (one-bid) league, you want/need the TV revenue from holding a conference tournament. You also want/need the money that comes from participating in the Big Dance. And if your champion is unable to play, there goes the latter half of that equation.

The leagues with tournaments finishing a week before Selection Sunday should be OK, since they'll have a buffer of nearly two weeks before they would need to play again.

The bigger concern is all the ones wrapping up in the 36 hours leading up to the bracket reveal.

Take the Big Ten, for example.

That conference is likely headed for nine or 10 bids, and if it sticks with the typical schedule, its championship game ends less than an hour before the selection show begins. If virus protocols aren't enough to keep an outbreak at bay, that's, like, one-seventh of the projected field possibly compromised less than a week before the first games are to be played.

That's why there's the Gonzaga/BYU conundrum.

Even if you decide as a conference to hold a tournament, you can't force teams to compete in said event. You could probably withhold their revenue share from the tournament if they don't participate, but that's about it. (You could try to do more to force them to play, but you're definitely going to come off looking like the bad guy.) And for a team that feels it is comfortably in the NCAA tournament field, that revenue share is a small sacrifice to make in order to drastically reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

As Gonzaga head coach Mark Few recently said on The Field of 68 podcast with Robbie Hummel and Jeff Goodman, "I want to play [in the WCC tournament]. We need games ... I've just never been totally great with the idea of taking 10 men's and 10 women's teams into Vegas in one venue at the same time, staying in casinos, and riding elevators and all that."

Houston's Quentin Grimes
Houston's Quentin GrimesEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

If Gonzaga and BYU ultimately pull out of the WCC tournament and the league still decides to let the winner of that tournament receive the automatic bid, that's a bid thief shrinking the bubble by one spot. That would also be the case if Houston opts out of the AAC tournament or Loyola-Chicago decides not to play in the MVC tournament. And if a bunch of high-major locks like Baylor, Michigan, Alabama and Villanova skip their tournaments, that drastically increases the likelihood of bubble-or-worse teams stealing bids in those tournaments.

I have no idea how many teams are considering opting out of their conference tournaments, but I do imagine there would be a domino effect if one team breaks the seal.

If a significant chunk of the NCAA tournament locks opt to skip their conference tournaments, bubble teams in those leagues would be missing out on major last-minute opportunities to prove themselves to the selection committee.

Again, let's use the Big Ten as an example.

If Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa all decide the risk is not worth the reward, you're now looking at a 10-team tournament with potential "Loser goes to the NIT" quarterfinals matchups like Rutgers vs. Minnesota and Maryland vs. Indiana. It creates a greater chance of a team stealing the auto bid, but it might actually decrease the league's total number of spots in the field.

Of course, most of the 31 conferences competing this season aren't facing this type of dilemma. Roughly two-thirds of the leagues will only send one team to the NCAA tournament, and they have to decide whether they'll award it to the regular-season champion or try to have a tournament, as normal.

Alternatively, it could be anything but normal.

The NCAA's Feb. 12 statement explicitly noted: "Conference championship format, field size and dates are under the auspices of the conferences." And I choose to read that as an open invitation to have some fun with it this year.

The tournament format I've been pitching for ages is: Have the normal single-elimination tournament, but if the No. 1 seed fails to win, it gets one more shot at the tournament champion to determine the automatic bid. It still gives everyone a chance to win, but it gives a sizable advantage to the league's regular-season champion. Translation: You still get the TV revenue for having a tournament, but it's much more likely your conference puts its best foot forward in the NCAA tournament.

You could have the top two teams in the league play a best-of-three series.

You could go the 2017-19 Ivy League route and have a tournament with just the top 50 percent of the league standings.

Or you could just skip the tournament altogether and send the regular-season champion to the Big Dance. (Given all the revenue lost/lessened in the past calendar year, though, the minor conferences will likely do everything within reason to avoiding canceling their tournament.)

If those smaller leagues were to go the regular-season champion route, though, it would increase the likelihood of a colossal first-round upset in the NCAA tournament.

In most years, there are at least half a dozen minor-conference No. 1 seeds who fail to win their respective tourney. As a result, teams who would have been No. 12 or No. 13 seeds miss the NCAA tournament, and teams who enter "conference tournament season" projected for No. 14 or No. 15 seeds rise up to take their places. That reduces the smaller leagues' collective upset potential.

But I digress. For now, we're just waiting to hear what the conferences will decide to do. And then it seems we'll be spending the first 10 days beyond Feb. 26 waiting to find out if any national title contenders will opt out of those tournaments.

We've spent the past three months acclimating to a college basketball season where everything on the schedule is tentative and liable to change, but things could get a little extra wild with the finish line drawing near.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.