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A lot riding on the Horizon League Tournament

Don’t get me wrong, I want to believe.

I want to believe that the Horizon League Tournament will be a success. It would be great to see a conference with 10 fan bases that have never traveled well all of a sudden come together for a neutral site tournament. The idea of 10 programs making the trek to a city and taking over its downtown for several days is enticing; I’ve been in Chicago and Indianapolis when the Big Ten Tournament has rolled into each city, and the party is incredible. Bringing the Horizon League that sense of community and togetherness is a worthy cause.

I want to believe that there aren’t any hard feelings around the conference. The best conferences in the country have neutral site tournaments, and in each one of those conferences there’s a school or two that has the advantage of being local. Everyone can come together, having the advantage of knowing far ahead where the conference tournament will be and being able to plan accordingly. Everyone will be pleased, because it allows the schools to come together and forge lasting relationships with fans from other schools. No one will be angry that the conference tournament favors schools that haven’t earned the home court advantage. No one will be angry that schools who have performed well are forced to travel farther than they’ve ever had to travel before to a location that benefits conference neophytes and marginal performers.

I want to believe that this will benefit the basketball of the conference. Getting a neutral site could help conference parity, making it so teams who have never done well have a decent shot at playing their way up in the conference. After all, deeper conference tournament runs may translate to better recruiting and a better team. Having a conference that evens out could make it so several programs are strong enough to represent the Horizon League well in the postseason, especially the NCAA Tournament. Turning the conference tournament into a tool to make everyone better could lift up the Horizon League.

I want to believe that this decision was about the fans and the players. Giving fans a location to rally around annually and players fewer days of missed classes and a special atmosphere, those are admirable causes. Putting fans and players first is something the Horizon League harps on frequently, so it’s good to see the conference doing something to make things better for fans and players.

I want to believe, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Last spring, I sat in Amanda Braun’s office to hear her side of the story on moving the Horizon League Tournament to Detroit. I couldn’t believe it, so I wanted the person who has our program’s best interests at heart to weigh in on why she supported this tournament, this #MotorCityMadness.

Long story short, I heard the pitch. She thought it would be beneficial for our program, our fans, our players. It would be good for the conference, because Olympia is putting a lot of weight behind promoting this conference tournament – weight that doesn’t exist in the previous format. All in all, good for everyone.

She had spent six years in Green Bay’s athletic department and was starting her third year as our Athletic Director, so it wasn’t like she wasn’t familiar with the Horizon League. Between the two schools, she was Associate AD at Northeastern, a great program in Boston that’s a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA, at the same mid-major level as the Horizon League, plays a successful neutral site conference tournament, so I knew Braun would be able to bring a level of knowledge on the format that other conference athletic directors lacked.

I left telling Braun and sports information director Bill Behrns that I’d be willing to give it a year. Braun’s as sharp as a tack, and in her experience with both neutral site tournaments and the Horizon League I figured she could have a better grasp on making this work than I did. So I was willing to wait and see.

Honestly, I left feeling like I would be there, on 3/8/16, fully ready to tell everyone ‘I told you so.’ I’m far from the only person who thought the move was ridiculous; indeed, hundreds of engaged fans went angry on social media, with the exception of those at Oakland and Detroit (I wonder why). That hasn’t stopped, with the arguments still going strong as we head into our first Motor City Madness conference tournament. I regret that the last time I talked to Reggie Hall, it was another argument about the move – we had always been respectful and great friends, but we couldn’t find common ground on this tournament. It makes me sad just typing that.

I want to believe this is going to work, that Titan Reggie’s fellow fans of Detroit and the new fans from Oakland are right – that this conference tournament move will be good for everyone.

But it’s not. The Horizon League Tournament was an institution, the model on which many conferences sculpted their own conference tournaments. With this move it seemed like Jon LeCrone was legacy shopping, trying to put a cap on a great career as commissioner of the Horizon League.

Here’s the problem: the previous format of the Horizon League Tournament was Jon LeCrone’s legacy. A man who has spent decades dedicating his life to intercollegiate athletics didn’t need to go legacy shopping because he already had it. The tournament format – giving a double-bye to the top two seeds in an effort to send the best possible teams to the NCAA Tournament – survives, at least until Tuesday’s championship buzzer sounds. The #1 seed hosting the conference tournament, however, died a quick death, and we won’t know the impact of that move until the games are played.

The double-bye came about in the 2003 Horizon League Tournament, after the infamous 2002 title game. Cleveland State’s Wolstein Center – a 13,000-seat cavern – hosted a battle of mid-carders as 6th-seed UIC Flames took out the 5th-seed Loyola Ramblers in front of maybe 200 fans. The top seeds – Butler, Detroit and Milwaukee – all lost their first or second games in the neutral site with a lack of advantage by any means. Butler went to the NIT, and UIC was quickly bounced like a basketball out of the Big Dance. The Horizon League gained nothing from the 2002 Tournament.

So for 2003, the Horizon League gave double-byes to the top 2 seeds. The final year of a round robin of hosting, it was a happy accident that #2 seed Milwaukee hosted at the downtown U.S. Cellular Arena, topping regular season champion Butler in the title game in front of 10,115 fans. It was an experience the Horizon League hadn’t really had in years, a high-major atmosphere for the conference tournament. It also wouldn’t have happened if Milwaukee had lost before the championship game, a real possibility if the conference hadn’t brought the double-bye around in the first place – in 2002, 3rd-seed Milwaukee lost in their first game, while 2nd-seed Detroit lost in the semifinal to UIC.

Butler went on to the Sweet 16 despite the title game loss, having had an at-large quality resume. Milwaukee lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer to Notre Dame in the first round as Dylan Page’s wide-open layup was off the mark.

After the Panthers brought an intense atmosphere to the 2003 title game, the Horizon League opted to make the regular season champion host the quarterfinals and semi-finals. Should the champions lose in the semi-finals, the top remaining seed would host the title game three days after the semis.

In 12 years of the full double-bye top-seed-hosted Horizon League Tournament, only once – 2014 – did the champion lose in the semi-finals. The conference tournament sent some of the best teams to the NCAA Tournament, with Butler going to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011 (double-bye both years, hosted 2010) and Sweet 16’s from the Bulldogs and Milwaukee (both teams were double-bye recipients). Even if you remove Butler from the equation, the Horizon League had more NCAA Tournament victories than almost every mid-major and low-major conference in the 12 years of the format.

In short, it did what it was supposed to do. It put the best teams in the NCAA Tournament, giving the conference the best chance to win. If a team overcame the odds and won four games in a week, including one and possibly two games over double-bye recipients, then that team was the best team headed into Selection Sunday. Green Bay, the one team to win the regular season title and lose in the semi-finals, was hobbled in 2014 – Alec Brown had a shoulder injury and Keifer Sykes’ knee injury kept him out of the NIT – had won the regular season title but were nowhere near full strength. Milwaukee took the title that season because they were the last team standing, the least bloodied. More often than not, even if the Horizon League Tournament Champion didn’t win in the NCAA Tournament, they came close. Last year, Valparaiso was a couple possessions away from a first-round upset. This season, they had a stronger team and face a tournament with the deck stacked in the favor of Oakland, a team they beat twice in 2015-16.

The 12 years of the Horizon League Tournament produced some of the best mid-majors the NCAA Tournament has ever seen. Milwaukee won the 2005 Horizon League Tournament by one point, Brandon Cotton’s runner just missing the mark. The Panthers had the double-bye and hosted the tournament – it’s not just possible but likely that had the current neutral-site tournament existed, 3rd-seed Detroit would have gone to the NCAA Tournament and Milwaukee’s Sweet 16 wouldn’t have happened.

It’s not just us. Butler’s magical runs in 2010 and 2011 were beautiful. The best story of mid-major basketball ever, and it’s possible that the current format would have prevented both runs from happening.

Butler was an at-large team in 2010 for sure; the Bulldogs were ranked #12 in the nation and earned a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. A loss in a neutral site tournament wouldn’t have kept the Bulldogs out. But the mid-major could have seen its seed drop. Does that magical Final Four run in 2010 happen if the Bulldogs are the 6-seed or 7-seed? It’s an entirely different tournament.

In 2011, there’s no argument – Butler wouldn’t have been an at-large bid at all. They didn’t even host – we did, and the 2011 Horizon League Tournament Championship game was a testament to that Butler team’s defensive ability. Butler didn’t host, but they were the 2-seed, given a double-bye. They beat Gary Waters’ CSU team – shareholders of the Horizon League Regular Season Title – when the Vikings were playing their third game of the week and second in two nights. The format stiffed the Vikings that season, but it got Butler to the NCAA Tournament and kicked off another run to the Final Four.

Simply put, these things might not have happened if the Horizon League Tournament was in its current format, or without the double-bye that could die now that the Motor City Madness has four rounds in four days.

It’s what made the Horizon League special. It’s what gave the regular season meaning. What does the regular season championship mean for Valparaiso now? It means a double-bye. Oakland’s second place finish gives them the champions’ treatment, a home tournament and a double-bye despite getting run out of the gym by Valpo – twice.

The regular season title of today is yesterday’s 2-seed. It’s completely senseless.

This had nothing to do with the fans, who were rewarded for getting to see their champions host the tournament at home. Did the fans have time to plan ahead? Sure. But what had been a weekend trip to the top seed and a Tuesday day-trip for the championship now becomes a six-day trip. Fans of teams playing Saturday have to leave early in the morning that day or late Friday. Should they make the title game, you’re staying in downtown Detroit for likely five nights, a big cost just for lodging. You’re also missing three days of work as you’re in town Monday, Tuesday and leaving Wednesday to get home, whereas the previous format you’d miss at most the Tuesday and overnight into Wednesday.

The 2002 neutral site debacle probably won’t be repeated. Not just because hometown Oakland has the deck stacked in their favor, but also because Olympia will promote the hell out of it to get at least a few hundred in the seats. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if the championship game is Valparaiso and Wright State, there will be a legit 2,000 fans in the building, maybe more. That’s a better number than the 2002 title game, but no matter what you’re not coming close to filling a gym that has 20,000 seats for basketball. It’s incredible how empty that gym is going to look. If Oakland or Detroit makes it? The Golden Grizzlies and Titans played at Calihan Hall for their annual rivalry game this year in front of 6,125. If you double that you’re still talking about a gym that’s only 60% full.

The previous format provided a high-major home atmosphere every single year. In 2014, with only two days to put it together, Wright State put 7,784 fans in the 10,400-seat Nutter Center – almost 75% full. Do Milwaukee and Wright State even come close to that number if the game is in Detroit? Not a chance in hell. Milwaukee sent a few hundred fans to Dayton. If Wright State had doubled our number to Detroit, we’d have played in front of 1,000 fans. In a cavern.

This won’t benefit the basketball, either. As stated, putting the best team in the NCAA Tournament has been a proven way to win in the Big Dance. If Valpo loses this weekend…er…weekendstart…?…there’s no chance in hell they get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That leaves us hoping a team that could have had a fluky Horizon League Tournament will go in an pull off a huge upset. Don’t forget that the conference is coming towards the end of the Butler Final Four money and needs desperately to replace that cash flow. I shudder to think of the kind of officiating we’ll get if we pay them even less.

Fans – who weren’t consulted on this – had nothing to do with the decision, and outside of Michigan most fans are irate. But at the end of the day, we’re fans – what about the people whose livelihoods depend on basketball? If a fan in Milwaukee thinks this is terrible, what’s Bryce Drew thinking? Or Mark LaBarbera? The coach and AD at Valparaiso…their blood has to be boiling. You fight hard throughout the season and get rewarded with a road tournament? Your program has come close to filling the building for each title game in recent years. The 2013 tournament was incredible, with buzzer beaters and a packed house for the title game putting on a wonderful show for the country.

Was that not enough? Now, because there was no promoter in Chicago or Indianapolis looking to put on a show for the Big Ten, Valpo has to go on the road to Detroit? They might play Oakland in the title game in front of a crowd that’s 80% pro-Oakland. How is that fair?

I touched on this in the HoriZone Roundtable podcast this weekend, but I don’t think people understand the implications this move could have on membership. Instead of having the stones to cut Youngstown State and their program that never fit this conference out of the Horizon League, we added Northern Kentucky years before they became a viable program. So we’re loading a conference with four RPI anchors and taking the conference tournament away from the top seed.

Do we really believe that Valpo won’t be angry about this? They’re one of two schools that voted against the move, the other voice of sanity coming from UIC. Valpo’s base HATES this move, as they should. Would anyone truly be surprised if they hopped the next train out of town?

Butler stayed with us for a long time. Eventually the A-10 came calling, but plenty of fans know that the MVC had been interested in them for years. Butler stuck it out with the Horizon League for almost a decade after we adopted the tournament format, that being precisely why – Butler knew that if they played the big fish in the small pond, eventually they would make a huge move up. That’s exactly what they did. The tournament format gave them the resume to move on. If we had this weekend’s format for the last 12 years, the conference would look very different – with Butler possibly leaving earlier than planned.

I’m not saying Valpo will skip and leave this spring. But the Horizon League isn’t really doing itself any favors; if an invitation came for Valpo – or Milwaukee, or Wright State – came in the mail, what argument would the Horizon League have to stand on? That we also have a neutral site tournament? The MVC and A-10 have had neutral site tournaments forever, and the fan bases that can support such a format. The Horizon League had a format that gave great benefits to its champion. That’s gone now. Unless you’re Oakland or Detroit. Those schools will never leave this place as long as the tournament is in their backyard.

This neutral site will likely never work. Not in the cavernous Joe Louis Arena and not in a sparkling new Red Wings facility. Of course, that’s not Olympia’s aim. Their aim is likely to become part of the Big Ten’s tournament cycle, to show that they can host a tournament at a mid-major level and are perfectly equipped to host the high-major tournament as well. If they really wanted the Horizon League Tournament long-term, you think they’d have bought motorcitymadness.com. Nothing says college basketball like a fastpitch softball team.

So goodbye Horizon League Tournament as we knew it. You were wonderful. You did your job, you elevated us to levels we couldn’t dream of before we brought you on.

The Horizon League’s slogan is ‘Raise Your Sights.’ Perhaps it should be ‘One step forward, two steps back.’

Nothing else seems to fit – you know, like putting a couple thousand people in a 20,000-seat airplane hangar.

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And now, let’s say goodbye to some great moments of Horizon League Tournament history.

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