State Tournaments In College Basketball? Why Not?

This college basketball season saw the first of two (and possibly more) Crossroads Classics.

The first Classic, played in December at Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, featured a double-header in which Indiana defeated Notre Dame and Butler edged out Purdue. At next season’s Classic (also at Bankers Life), Purdue will play Notre Dame and Indiana will play Butler.

Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said the event would be a “great showcase for the state of Indiana” featuring “the four premier programs in the state.”

Fans of Indiana’s six other Division I teams might take exception to that statement.

Proud History Of Collegiate Hoops In Hoosier State

Butler’s two championship game appearances are fresh in our memory, but the Bulldogs didn’t qualify for a single NCAA Tournament in their first two decades in Division I. During that time, Larry Bird and Indiana State played in a national championship game (something neither Purdue nor Notre Dame has ever done) and Valparaiso made a memorable run to the Sweet 16 thanks to the heroics of Bryce Drew.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Butler, Indiana State, and Valpo were nowhere to be found, but Evansville and Ball State were making regular NCAA Tournament appearances. Evansville is one of two schools in Indiana to have five NCAA championship banners in its gym (all are for Division II titles), and Ball State nearly knocked off eventual national champion UNLV in the 1990 Sweet Sixteen.

IUPUI and IPFW have made steady progress in their short time in Division I.

Why not have an event that showcases all ten of the state’s Division I programs? And why stop at “showcase”? Let’s have a tournament and determine a champion.

For that matter, why stop with Indiana? Let’s do this in every state that has four or more Division I teams.

I went into the future and snapped this picture of Evansville's 2015 Indiana State Championship banner.

Would State College Basketball Tournaments Work Elsewhere?

In Ohio, for example, the three strongest basketball programs—Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Xavier—are in different conferences. And, in many seasons, Dayton or even Cleveland State or Wright State would have a chance of upsetting any of the three.

If we had state tournaments this season:

  • Murray State could prove its worth against Louisville and Kentucky;
  • St. Louis might face Missouri with a chance to win a state title and to add a much needed big win to its NCAA Tournament profile;
  • Bubble mates Colorado and Colorado State each could give its at-large chances a boost by beating the other (and Denver) en route to a Centennial State championship;
  • And the  Northern Iowa Panthers, who are a perfect 4-0 against Iowa, Iowa State, and Drake, could get a trophy for their Hawkeye State dominance.

Yesterday Andy Smukler lamented that, for casual college basketball fans, the season begins in March. Everything that happens between November and February matters only insofar as it affects NCAA Tournament qualification and seeding (or, in the case of my beloved Evansville Aces, CBI or CIT qualification—at this point, even the NIT is out of the picture).

Sure, teams vie for conference titles. But even a regular-season conference championship, the fruit of a 16- or 18-game conference season, is incomplete without a conference tourney win. The automatic NIT bid that a team gets for winning its league in the regular season but failing to secure an NCAA invitation is a bit of a let-down (especially when the league’s fourth-place team, with its 17-15 record, upsets a Big East school in the first round of the Big Dance).

Granted, there are already a lot of regular season tournaments, but rarely will you hear a fan boast of the time his or her team won big in Anchorage or San Juan. The early season and conference tournaments are great, but they involve meaningless assortments of teams selected by tournament promoters. It’s nice to win the Diamond Head Classic or the Battle 4 Atlantis, but it doesn’t really prove anything.

State tournaments would be different.

They would involve coaches who recruit against one another, fan bases that are forced to tolerate one another in workplaces and social situations, and low- and mid-major players plotting revenge on the programs that passed them over. And a meaningful championship would be at stake.

Apparently, I'm not the first person to have this idea. The women of Blackstone College won the Virginia State Tournamanet in 1932. (Photo from the Library of Virginia.)

Challenges Presented By State College Basketball Tournaments

Scheduling such a tournament would be tricky.

A state tournament would work best as a long weekend at a single site; the champion would win three or four games in as many days. But finding a weekend on which all of a state’s Division I teams would agree to meet for a tournament would be nearly impossible, unless the NCAA set aside a weekend (say, the second weekend in February) as State Tournament Weekend.

Another option would be to spread the tournament throughout the season. Opening round games might be in November; the final might be in late February.

Regardless of when these tournaments happen, athletic directors at the participating schools likely will want a losers’ bracket so that their teams will be guaranteed a certain number of games. No one wants to watch SIUE play Chicago St. for eleventh place in the Illinois State Tournament, but such a game would probably need to happen for this idea to work.

In states where the number of Division I schools isn’t a power of two (most of them), some teams will have to play more games than others. Organizers would need some way to determine which teams played in the opening round and which earned a bye. One possible solution would be to fill the bracket with Division II and III teams. Another option would be a rotation in which (for example) each team would play an opening-round game once every three years.

State tournaments would add a extra layer of meaning to in-state rivalries. They would give little-brother programs a chance to prove themselves against their more esteemed siblings.

And they’d be a lot of fun for fans.



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. This is one of the best damn sports ideas I’ve heard in a long time. This would be AWESOME. As an Indiana fan, I can tell you how big every game against Hoosier State foes has been this year: Evansville, Notre Dame, Butler, Purdue. I can’t even explain the immense pride we’ve all taken in not just getting back into the top 25, but how we’ve been able to do it by beating in-state teams – all of whom we respect greatly – and rivals. It’s huge. And even if we were on the losing end of these games, they have extra meaning that makes them more compelling, especially when you consider how many great high school basketball players are in the state and trying to split hairs between state schools for where they are going to go. I want this happen! 

  2. Muuka Muyumba says:

    Regionals would truly be regionals.

  3. “…Indiana State played in a national championship game (something neither Purdue nor Notre Dame has ever done)…” Apparently 1969 is never. UCLA 92 – Purdue 72.

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