Conference Tournaments Do One-Bid Leagues No Favor

Much to the chagrin of Charismatic Christians everywhere, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles will not be dancing this year.

It is yet another example of how conference tournaments can actually work to the long-term detriment of one-bid leagues.

Strong Regular Seasons All For Naught

Oral Roberts

The Golden Eagles dominated the Summit League with a 17-1 record, the only loss coming on the road to second-place South Dakota State. And they put together a respectable at-large résumé, beating Xavier by 22 in Cincinnati (in the aftermath of the brawl, but still), picking up respectable wins over Missouri State and Akron, and keeping pace with West Virginia and Gonzaga in close losses on the road. Oral Roberts is 53rd in the RPI (depending on which RPI you look at), ahead of teams such as Texas and Washington.

Monday the Golden Eagles lost to Western Illinois in the semifinal of the Summit League Tournament. Despite being the Summit’s best team, Oral Roberts will not earn the League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. ORU is now at the mercy of the Selection Committee, who will almost certainly leave the Eagles off of this year’s bracket.

Oral Roberts had a good season and has demonstrated that they are capable of winning a game or two in the Big Dance. But, compared to other teams on the bubble, the Eagles don’t have the quality wins or strength-of-schedule numbers to warrant an at-large invitation. As a regular-season conference winner, Oral Roberts gets an automatic bid to the NIT.

Middle Tennessee State

Middle Tennessee State is in a similar situation.

The Blue Raiders compiled a 25-6 overall record and went 14-2 in the Sun Belt, two games better than any other team in the league. This weekend, the Raiders lost to 14-20 Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinals. Like Oral Roberts, Middle Tennessee will probably spend March in the NIT.

The Blue Raiders picked up impressive road wins over Loyola Marymount and UCLA in November and followed with pretty good wins over Belmont, Akron, and Mississippi. They lost a close game at Vanderbilt, proving that they could compete against good teams from power conferences.

In lieu of giving its auto bid to Oral Roberts, the Summit League will be sending tournament winner South Dakota State to the NCAA Tourney. The Jackrabbits, who needed overtime to beat Western Illinois in the Summit final, boast a 27-7 record and a 19-point road win over Washington and are capable of winning an NCAA Tournament Game.

The Sun Belt was less fortunate. Its representative is 15-18 Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers will almost certainly be a 16-seed and could end up playing early in the week in Dayton.

The 15-18 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are going dancing. (Photo by J S Robinson)

Belmont Bruins (Whew…)

The Belmont Bruins will represent the Atlantic Sun. Belmont is 27-7 and on a 14-game winning streak. The Bruins have wins over Middle Tennessee and Marshall and opened the season by losing by only single point to Duke at Cameron Indoor.

But were it not for a second-half comeback in the Atlantic Sun final, Belmont would be headed to the NIT and a 16-16 Florida Gulf Coast team would represent the conference in the Big Dance.

Questions Abound

The Summit, Sun Belt, and Atlantic Sun are usually one-bid leagues, and that one bid to the Big Dance goes to the winner of their conference tournaments. The Sun Belt sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2008—South Alabama earned an at-large invitation—and there have been seasons when Western Kentucky would have been an at-large candidate had the Toppers not won the Sun Belt tourney. But most seasons these conferences, and many others, get to put one team in the bracket.

Since they usually only get one bid, why don’t these conferences send their best team?

And why should a team that has proven itself to be a league’s best team over the course of a 16- or 18-game conference season have to win another two or three games in March to be the league’s champion?

Why should Montana (24-6, 15-1) have to prove that it is more worthy to represent the Big Sky than Eastern Washington (15-17, 8-8)? (Poor Utah Valley, who was three games better than every other team in the Great West, will have to win its conference tournament just to represent its conference in the Tournament.)

Many leagues already give their best teams advantages such as multiple byes and tournament games on their home court to make upsets less likely. Why not completely eliminate the possibility of a 15-18 team stealing a bid from a 25-6 team by getting rid of the conference tournament altogether?

For One-Bid Leagues, Conference Tournaments Don’t Make Sense…Just Cents

There is no NCAA rule that says that every conference except the Ivy League must have a conference tournament to determine its NCAA Tournament representative. Each league makes its own rules for awarding its automatic bid. And for conferences whose teams are seldom worthy of an at-large invitation, a conference tournament doesn’t make much sense.

In power conferences and mid-major leagues such as the WCC, Missouri Valley, and CAA, in which top teams are often worthy of at-large consideration, conference tournaments allow teams that would be on the bubble or out of the tournament entirely to play their way in, earning the conference another bid. For example, if Illinois State had upset Creighton in the Missouri Valley final, the Redbirds would have clinched an NCAA Tournament bid, but not at the expense of conference brethren Creighton and Wichita State, both of whom are locks for the Big Dance. Had Illinois State won, the Valley would have gotten three bids.

In 2008 a Georgia team that was 13-16 heading into the SEC Tournament won four straight games and the league’s automatic bid, giving the SEC six NCAA Tournament teams instead of five. This week at the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern can strengthen its case for a bid by winning two or three games. Or they could erase all doubt by winning four.

But conference tournament upsets in one-bid leagues seldom result in multiple NCAA Tourney invites for the league.

Instead, these upsets result in good teams (such as Middle Tennessee) sitting at home watching bad teams (such as Western Kentucky) represent their conference in a Tuesday night game on truTV. This not only hurts the MTSU Blue Raiders, who were denied their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1989; but it also hurts the conference.

For each NCAA tournament game a team plays it earns a “money unit” for its conference. Teams that advance earn more money for the league. Thus a conference is better off sending a team that, with favorable match-ups and a few good breaks, could make a Sweet 16 run than one that will lose by 29 to Syracuse in its first game.

Conference tournaments seem like bad investments.

In addition to hurting a league’s chances of scoring big in the NCAA Tournament, they often require conferences to rent out arenas they can’t fill. The Ohio Valley Conference, for example, rents out the 8,000-seat Nashville Municipal Auditorium. According to the Associated Press’s Teresa Walker, 5,142 people attended the Ohio Valley Conference semifinal at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium between Murray State and Tennessee Tech. Though nearly 3,000 seats were empty, the crowd was the largest at an OVC Tourney game since 1999. The Summit League rents out the Sioux Falls Arena in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The MAC books 20,ooo-seat Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits celebrate their Summit League title and first NCAA Men's Tournament berth. (Photo by Aaron Stoneberger, SDSU Collegian.)

While there are monetary reasons for one-bid leagues to get rid of conference tournaments and send their regular-season winners to the NCAA Tournament, money is also the reason they don’t.

ESPN pays good money for the rights to broadcast conference championship games. Viewers who would never watch a game between Western Illinois and South Dakota State on ESPNU in January will tune in to watch the same two teams play in March on ESPN2 with an NCAA Tourney bid on the line. Though eliminating conference tournaments makes good basketball sense, it could cost low-major leagues a lot of TV money. I don’t imagine that conference commissioners and school presidents will listen to a plea to get rid of conference tournaments for the good of the game when ESPN money is at stake.

One alternative would be for one-bid leagues to have a single championship game involving their two best teams. This would work especially well in conferences such as the Sun Belt, MAC, Southern, and Southland that have two divisions.

Perhaps there is no way for a one-bid league to get rid of its tournament without taking a financial hit. But it isn’t fair that teams such as Oral Roberts and Middle Tennessee, who dominated their conferences all season, won’t get to represent their leagues in college basketball’s biggest event.

And, frankly, it isn’t fair to fans that so many conferences aren’t sending their best team to the Big Dance.


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. Sun Belt Fan says:

    But the Sun Belt IS sending their best team. After firing their coach after starting the season 5-11, WKU’s new coach Ray Harper has turned the team around. They won four games in four nights to win the conference tournament, and beat both MTSU and Arkansas State in the final two games of the season before the conference tourney.

    While they aren’t sending the team with the best record or that had the best season, they are sending the best team.

  2. Hallheating says:


  3. The Conference Tournaments make the regular season even more irrelevant in College Basketball.  It’s ironic that College Football has NO playoff, and College BBall has TOO many playoffs!  All the conference tournaments are is just a money grab before the real tournament, so I have never thought they were needed.  In saying that, I don’t want to hear mid major conference regular season winners complain they don’t get in the tourney if they lose in their conference tournaments.  If they are going to take money every March for that weeks tournament games for your conference, don’t complain if it doesn’t work out for you!

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