Conference USA is willing to try just about everything to add at least one more team to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament dance card. And it’s not afraid to get gimmicky.
The one gimmick the league announced could very well work. C-USA is holding the last four games of the regular season open, grouping teams by conference record and having the top five teams play each other, the second five and so on.
That’s a good one. By keeping the conference’s top teams together at the end of the season, one or two could build enough of a resume to make the tournament without having to win the conference tournament title.
That apparently was just one of two ideas offered by a consultant to help C-USA’s NCAA tournament hopes. The other was cast aside. And thank goodness for that.
According to a story on Old Dominion’s athletic website, the consultant suggested the Conference USA tournament move from a neutral site to campus sites, so the stands would be more packed and it would look better on television. That idea had at least one fan in ODU coach Jeff Jones.
“I don’t know why we didn’t do that,” the website reported Jones saying. “We need to do it next season.”
No, Conference USA does not need to to that next season. Or in any season. C-USA is not built for campus-site tournament games.
Jones advocated the Patriot League’s model, where higher seeds would host games. There’s a major difference between the Patriot League and C-USA — geography.
The Patriot League is sequestered to the Northeast. It doesn’t have a team farther east than Boston, farther south or west than Washington, D.C., or farther north than Hamilton, New York. Those are bus trips.
Conference USA stretches from Huntington to Miami, from Norfolk, Virginia, to El Paso, Texas. That spans two time zones.
So if a team, say Florida International, would visit Western Kentucky for a tournament game, upset the Hilltoppers, then have to travel to UTEP for the next round, that travel itnerary would be Miami to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to El Paso? That’s a bus trip … to the airport with a layover or two if the team is flying commercial. That’s just too much.
And that’s just too much that any of those teams would have to sink into their travel budgets. ODU wouldn’t worry too much. According to USA Today’s database, it enjoyed the conference’s biggest revenue total at more than $46 million. But it’s the only athletic program with revenues over $40 million. Five conference teams were under $30 million.
A C-USA tournament that used campus sites would last too long and be too much of a logistical nightmare for too many of the teams in the conference. Now, that’s not to say the conference could do a whole lot better than its tournament’s current home, The Star in Frisco, Texas.
That would be the practice facility of the Dallas Cowboys. Yes, Conference USA holds its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at a football practice facility. It holds two courts with a curtain in between.
I was at The Star this summer for Big 12 football media day. It’s a great venue for something like that. For a college basketball tournament? Not so much.
The tournament’s former home in Birmingham, Alabama, suited the conference just fine. The men’s tournament stayed at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. The early rounds of the women’s tournament were held at Bartow Arena. It was about as centrally located for conference teams as you could get.
Fans know where their teams will be for the duration of the tournament. There’s no chance of having to criss-cross two time zones in order to follow them through the postseason.
There are gimmicks that work and there are gimmicks for the sake of running a gimmick. The scheduling format is the former. Campus sites for tournament games are the latter.
Frankly, the best way to improve C-USA’s chances of multiple NCAA tournament teams is to get the teams on the bottom rungs of the conference to get better. That, above everything, is C-USA’s largest hurdle come NCAA tournament time.
Last season, six Conference USA teams finished 204th or worse in RPI. Only four finished 78th or better. Ten of the conference’s 14 teams finished outside the top 100.
And there’s the problem. Most of the wins in C-USA come against teams that won’t impress the selection committee. Losses to some of those teams are deadly.
That’s why the new scheduling format looks like a winner. And that’s why there’s no need to complicate the conference tournament.
It’s about who C-USA teams beat late in the season, not where they beat them.