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Big East Does Well to Preserve Double Bye in Tournament

September 3, 2010 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

As conference tournaments go, the Big East Tournament stands out for a lot of reasons. It has the longest-running conference tournament at one venue, as Madison Square Garden has been home to it since 1983. It has had plenty of memorable games, including the six overtime game in 2009. Another thing that makes it stand out now is that all of its teams make it, and the conference has 16 teams. That has been the subject of some debate with the tournament format, and although a few months ago it looked like there would be a change to it soon, there won’t be.

Count me among those who like that it won’t change.

Last week, the athletic directors and Big East board of directors opted to keep the current format that involves two sets of byes into later rounds. There was discussion, as well as unanimous support among the coaches, for a straight five-day, five-round tournament where no team gets a bye, but that will not happen.

For the first three seasons that the conference had 16 teams, only the top 12 made the conference tournament. That kept it at a four-day tournament with one set of byes, as the top four teams each got a bye into the quarterfinals. With it, teams were rewarded for finishing in the top four in the regular season, and the bottom teams stayed home.

The past two seasons have seen all 16 teams go to New York, but the byes changed. It made sense: why should a team that finished at or near the top have to win as many games as a team that finished at the bottom? Sure, the matchups would be better for teams at the top, but they should get some reward for finishing there. With this change, the bottom eight teams would have to win five games in five days to take home the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Teams that finished fifth through eighth got a bye into the second round, meaning they would need to win four games in four days. The top four teams all got a bye into the quarterfinals, meaning they would need to win three games in three days.

It sounds fair to me. But apparently, some coaches didn’t think so, especially after three of the top four seeds lost in the quarterfinals this past year. What that has to do with fairness is beyond me, but let’s dig deeper.

The three top seeds that lost were No. 1 Syracuse (91-84 to No. 8 Georgetown), No. 2 Pittsburgh (50-45 to No. 7 Notre Dame) and No. 4 Villanova (80-76 to No. 5 Marquette). Only No. 3 West Virginia survived and ultimately won the conference title.

Let’s think back over the past few years while the Big East has had 16 teams. We’ve heard ad nauseum about how powerful the conference is. Coach after coach, commentator after commentator has talked about how the conference is just amazing, how “there’s not an off night” or “there aren’t any bad teams” in the conference. So how come that doesn’t apply now? Shouldn’t the great depth of the conference that we’ve heard so much about be a suitable explanation for why three teams that all won at least 10 games managed to knock off one of the top seeds in a one-game elimination tournament? Why isn’t that the explanation as opposed to the setup being “unfair”?

Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon was on the mark when he told ESPN.com, “The strength of our conference means you’re going to have upsets in our conference because you’re playing Top 25 teams in the final eight (of the tournament)”.

The top four seeds go two days without playing a game, but that’s not a bad thing. Several conference tournaments have had a double bye like this, oftentimes done to protect the top seeds in mid-major conferences. The idea is that teams need to be rewarded for a good regular season and they should have as good a chance to get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as possible, short of simply putting them in a championship game only. Notably, both the Horizon League and West Coast Conference give the top two seeds byes into the semifinals, and early in August the WAC announced a change to a similar model for 2011 prior to the much-publicized membership changes that happened later in the month.

The regular season should always be rewarded, even if there’s a slim difference in the standings. In sports, teams have won by a nose numerous times, from winning a division title by one game or even in a playoff to getting the top seed in a conference tournament based on a tie-breaker. By keeping the double bye in the Big East Tournament, the regular season gets rewarded. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

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