The 2020-21 college basketball season approaches its long-anticipated postseason a year after March Madness 2020, the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament, was canceled due to COVID-19. Some teams are battling for seeding while others fight for their postseason lives.
Before the tournament tips off, conference tournaments help set the field and determine the automatic bids from mid-major conferences. I enjoy conference tournaments as it feels like an appetizer for the main course of the tournament, giving us all-day action leading up to Selection Sunday.
However, there is one major issue with conference tournaments, and every season it rears its ugly head: last-place teams competing for a spot in the tournament.
While I understand the point of having last-place teams creates more chaos for March Madness, it ruins the urgency of winning in the regular season and cheapens the grind. There is a realistic scenario where a team could go the entire regular season without a single win, but can go undefeated in the conference tournament and make it to March Madness with fringe bubble teams missing out instead. For example, the University of Nebraska sits at 5-13 with a 1-10 conference record, putting it last in the loaded Big Ten Conference. Delaware State University sits at 1-12, with an 0-7 record in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Do either of these two teams deserve a chance at college basketball’s ultimate competition despite not having single conference win? They do not.
Putting these teams in the conference tournament eliminates the necessity of these teams needing to win in the regular season, as they can just win four or five games in the conference tournament and lock themselves in for the postseason. It feels like college basketball’s equivalent of a participation trophy, and it lessens the value of an already underwhelming regular season system.
My solution for this is not to eliminate the conference tournaments, but reduce them.
Depending on the size of the conference, it should be cut down anywhere from four to eight teams, each with the 14-team conferences having six- to eight-team conference tournaments. In 2019, the Ivy League tournament only had four teams, allowing for only the top half of the league to compete for a March Madness berth.
The best teams should be rewarded for their strong regular seasons, and the worst teams should not have a clear path to the ultimate tournament in college basketball.
Stop giving out participation trophies for the losing teams and let the best compete for a spot in the Big Dance.