Conference tournament carnage may weaken the NCAA tourney field

The Dagger
Conference tournament carnage may weaken the NCAA tourney field
Conference tournament carnage may weaken the NCAA tourney field

Monmouth piled up 27 victories this season, upset four power-conference opponents and won its league outright.

Valparaiso racked up 26 victories this season, won its league by three games and went 4-2 against top 100 teams.

They're both now in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, the latest victims of a chaotic championship week in which upsets have so far been the only certainty. 

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With Monmouth falling 79-76 to rival Iona in Monday night's MAAC title game and Valparaiso losing 99-92 in overtime to Green Bay in the Horizon League semifinals, conference tournament carnage has claimed two more regular season champs. Seven top-seeded teams have already slipped up in conference tournaments and only SoCon winner Chattanooga has so far managed to cut down the nets.

All the upsets will make for a weaker NCAA tournament because some of the nation's best small-conference squads will be relegated to the NIT. March Madness will miss Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker if Wichita State does not earn an at-large bid, as will it also be worse off if a deep, experienced Valparaiso team is left home or if Monmouth's fun-loving bench is doomed to the NIT. 

Diluting the NCAA tournament is the downside to small conferences holding end-of-the-year tournaments instead of simply awarding automatic bids to their regular season champion. Season-long excellence is typically more of a harbinger for NCAA tournament success than pulling off an upset or two in a conference tournament is.

Iona guard A.J. English (5) embraces Monmouth guard Justin Robinson (12) after Iona's 79-76 win (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Iona guard A.J. English (5) embraces Monmouth guard Justin Robinson (12) after Iona's 79-76 win (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Of course, the upside to conference tournaments — and the reason every league but the Ivy holds one — is the revenue, exposure and entertainment value they generate. The ecstasy of a team rescuing a disastrous regular season with a memorable conference tournament run is a part of the fabric of March, as is the agony of a team squandering a brilliant season with a memorable conference tournament collapse.

Like Wichita State, the silver lining for Monmouth and Valparaiso is that both have realistic hope of earning an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

Boosting Monmouth's chances are neutral-court wins over NCAA tournament-bound Notre Dame and USC and road wins at underachieving UCLA and Georgetown. Neither the Bruins nor Hoyas achieved what was expected of them when Monmouth beat them, but the selection committee will nonetheless take note that the Hawks beat the No. 98 and No. 103 RPI teams in their own gyms.

Monmouth (27-7, 7-3) is hurt by a trio of damaging losses, one at Army just after Christmas two in league play at Canisius and Manhattan. Those three losses dragged the Hawks' RPI down to No. 50 even though they had essentially accomplished everything a MAAC team can possibly do prior to losing Monday's title game to Iona.

Valparaiso's resume doesn't have as many marquee wins, nor are the Crusaders' worst losses quite so bad. The most notable win Valparaiso (26-6) has notched is a road victory at bubble team Oregon State. The Crusaders also came within six at Pac-12 champion Oregon, but they've lost five games against opponents ranked between 100 and 158 in the RPI.

It would be great if the selection committee took both Valparaiso and Monmouth and relegated a couple of middling power-conference teams to the NIT, but history has shown that's unlikely. 

Two years ago, Green Bay missed the NCAA tournament despite piling up 24 wins, capturing the outright Horizon League title and defeating ACC champion Virginia in non-conference play. Last year, Murray State won 27 games and went undefeated in its conference yet was relegated to the NIT.

A number of small-conference champions will meet the same fate this year. Monmouth and Valparaiso hope they're not among them.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

 

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