PantherU

Defending the double-bye

Milwaukee benefited from the home atmosphere of the Cell and the double-bye format, turning it into a Sweet 16 appearance.

When Valparaiso finished its first year in the Horizon League, the 2007-08 season saw top seeded Butler smash runner-up Cleveland State at Hinkle Fieldhouse on its way to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth consecutive year a Horizon League team ended up winning at least one game on the national stage.

Meanwhile, two other tournaments were held in the midwest by comparable conferences: the MAC tournament was won by regular season champion Kent State, and the Summit was won by Oral Roberts.  All three conference regular season champions went on to win their tournament championships, with all three pulling in the NCAA’s automatic bid to the post season tournament.

Butler won in the first round before bowing out in a heavily contested game against Tennessee, but Kent State and Oral Roberts were both blown out in the first round.  What happened?  Well, truth be told, Butler was a better team than the schools in Ohio and Oklahoma.  And that’s the point.

Butler's easier road to the tournament was a small price to pay for a Horizon League National Runner-up

In 2003, the Horizon League adopted a new tournament format.  The top two seeds would receive a bye all the way to the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament.  The following year, the regular season champion hosted the tournament from the quarterfinals on, with Milwaukee being the host for four years in a row through 2006.  The idea behind the scheme was simple:

Get the best teams in the conference into the NCAA tournament.

It’s quite simple, really.  The NCAA selection committee has long ignored the cries of Horizon League fans that our schools are good enough for multiple at-large selections.  Hell, despite having 14 tournament victories since adopting the new format, the Horizon League has seen only three at-large teams, Butler every time.

The respect that conferences get in the nation is derived from performance in the NCAA Tournament.  If you want victories in the NCAA Tournament, you better have your best teams in the dance.  If you want your best teams in the dance, stack the deck in their favor.  This has been particularly useful for the conference in the last several years.

In 2004 and 2005, Milwaukee had the ace in the hole and nearly lost it both years, doing so in 2004 to UIC.  The Panthers were not selected for an at-large bid that season, and UIC promptly exited the tournament in the first round.

Coincidence?  Of course not.  The conference regular season champion has gone to the championship game every year since the new format’s inception, and except for 2004, that team has made it to the NCAA Tournament.  In lesser conferences, regular season champs are left on the chopping block because they lose early in the conference tournament.  The No. 1 seed in the Horizon League, however, faces its stiffest test before the title game against, at the absolute best, the #4 seed.  By doing so, it gives the champ as much of a free reign as possible on their side of the bracket, setting the stage for a nationally-televised championship game on the #1 seed’s home floor.

Is it unbeatable?  No, of course not.  Ask Gary Waters and Cleveland State if it is impossible.  But to win on the champ’s home court, you can’t be a flash in the pan, and CSU followed that up with their biggest victory in 20 years, over Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

The MAC and Summit regular season champions begin play in the quarterfinals on a neutral site; in the MAC, the champion has the same benefits as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds.  The Summit cuts out the bottom two teams and plays a straight up eight-team tournament.

By taking away the natural home court advantage, the best teams in the MAC and Summit lose a major advantage to neutral ground.  By also making the amount of games equal, the MAC and Summit champs have to run the same gauntlet as everybody else; if the No. 8 seed in the Summit gets hot at the end of the year, they’re just as dangerous as the No. 1 seed.

After proving worthy in the 2008 title game, the Vikings bitch slapped Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

This leads to a much higher possibility of the automatic qualifier for the MAC and Summit to be a team other than the conference champion.  The reason is this: your best teams should be good enough to get in on an at-large basis, so by getting in other teams, you multiply your chances of a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Except there are problems.  For one, the teams at the top of the MAC and Summit are good.  Great teams come out of the tops of those conferences.  However, poor RPI in comparison to high-major and better mid-major conferences mean that the NCAA Selection Committee will look elsewhere for it’s at-large teams in most cases.  Even if the best teams were to receive at-large bids, the fact that they lost their conference tournaments means that they will undoubtedly be seeded lower than had they won, a fact that didn’t escape Oakland with the No. 52 RPI as it was getting pounded by 3-seed Pittsburgh.

The Horizon League understood this, and fixed the problem.  Now, if a team is good enough to go win on the champ’s home floor with the No. 1 seed only playing one game to the challenger’s three in one week, you know that team is the real deal.  Wake Forest knows it for sure.

Mark Lazerus of the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune wrote a couple years ago that the Horizon League should change its format.  He was wrong on that, and the conference’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is proof of it.  The best team in the conference has made the NCAA Tournament seven of eight years since the format change, and the lone year also coincides with the only time the conference didn’t come away with a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

So good luck, and may we see you all at the 2011 Horizon League Championship game at the U.S. Cellular Arena. 😉

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