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Against Automatic Bids for Conference Tournament Winners

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Ah, Championship Week. The preliminaries for March Madness. The time when any team that has gone through a failed season can salvage its dignity by making a conference tourney run and getting an automatic bid to the NCAAs. The conference tourneys feature surprises every year. This year, the biggest news so far is that Cleveland State, a pretty decent team that beat Syracuse earlier this year, upset Butler for the Horizon Title. Another Cinderella, my alma mater South Alabama, fell short in their upset bid against Sun Belt favorite Western Kentucky. Last year, Georgia pulled off one of the most remarkable conference tourney runs in recent history, winning the SEC despite coming in as a sixth seed.

These stories make for sentimental moments for the fans and exciting television for ESPN, but in my opinion granting auto bids to conference tourney winners is a mistake. The practice make it possible for a team that has performed poorly all year to be rewarded for getting it together for three or four days. Conversely, deserving teams that have played well throughout the season find themselves pushed off the bubble by teams like last year's UGA that put together a nice run in their tourney. Similarly, in the smaller conferences that only get one bid, a team that has dominated the conference throughout the year can find itself in the NIT after a lesser team gets the upset in the conference tourney. While I cheered for South Alabama last night, the situation with the Jags and Western Kentucky could have led to such a scenario if the Jags had pulled out the upset. A system that rewards short-term, flash-in-the-pan success at the expense of season-long achievement is inherently unfair and anti-meritocratic.

I'm not, I should emphasize, arguing against the inclusion od mid-majors in the NCAAs. A mid-major that has excelled on its level deserves the opportunity to prove itself against the big boys. I'm also not arguing against the inclusion of multiple teams from a mid-major conference getting bids. Last year, both South Alabama and Western Kentucky got bids out of the Sun Belt; Western Kentucky won the tournament and South got an at-large bid, but both teams had great seasons and deserved a place in the field of 65. If two teams from a mid-major conference earn the right to be considered one of the country's best teams, they both deserve a spot in the NCAAs. What I don't like is when a team that hasn't proven itself to be good gets into the tournament. Such cases take spots away from better teams and, moreover, they cheapen the NCAAs by leading to predictable first-round blowouts after conference tourney Cinderellas comes back down to earth.

Perhaps what I like least about this practice is the fact that it could be so easily remedied. Why not award the regular-season champion with the automatic bid to the NCAAs instead of giving it to the tourney champion? At present, the regular-season winner gets an automatic NIT bid, meaning that a team that has gone 14-2 in its conference can end up in the NIT while a team that has gone 8-8 can get into the NCAAs if the 8-8 team wins the tourney. That, my friends, is profoundly backwards. Why not let the tourney winner get an NIT bid if it isn't good enough to play in the NCAAs? That way, regular-season champs and legit at-large contenders could get deserved spots in the NCAAs.