A traditional one-bid league should have two goals each year for its conference tournament: Gaining as much revenue and exposure as possible without putting the top seed in undue jeopardy.
It’s a tricky balancing act that the MAAC botched badly this year.
One year after being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee despite 27 wins including four over power-conference programs, Monmouth again ran away with the MAAC title, this time by four full games. The Hawks (27-6) were exactly the type of mid-major that can emerge as a March darling thanks to their formidable backcourt, fun-loving bench and ample experience against power-conference competition.
Alas, Monmouth almost certainly will almost certainly have to settle for an NIT bid again after falling 89-85 to fourth-seeded Siena in a MAAC semifinal that the league made needlessly difficult for the Hawks. Since the MAAC chose to have Siena host its conference tournament, Monmouth’s reward for its season-long dominance of the league was a road semifinal on the Saints’ home floor.
The MAAC had admirable intentions when it moved the tournament back to the Times Union Center in Albany in 2015 after four years at sparsely attended neutral sites. Selling tickets had traditionally been easier in Albany because Siena draws substantially larger crowds than any other team in the league.
But the price of designating a host school before the season is potentially endangering the tournament’s top seed by forcing it to play a road game. That’s unwise since league champs typically have the best chance of winning an NCAA tournament game, bringing even greater revenue and exposure to the rest of the conference.
The Mountain West and Ivy League are two of the only conferences besides the MAAC to use a league member’s home arena as its host venue. Most traditional one-bid leagues go to extreme measures to protect their top teams, whether by allowing the higher seed to host every game or by granting its top two seeds a bye to the semifinals.
You can argue Monmouth shouldn’t have needed such advantages. The Hawks won at Siena by 20 points less than a month ago.
You can argue home-court advantage hasn’t helped Siena in the past. The Saints won only one tournament game both of the past two seasons.
And you can certainly argue Monmouth played a big role in its own demise. Playing without injured all-league guard Micah Seaborn, the Hawks coughed up a 14-point halftime lead against Siena by yielding an unfathomable 64 second-half points.
But while all of that is undeniably true, it doesn’t change the fact that playing at home in front of a roaring green-and-gold-clad crowd was a big advantage for Siena as it launched its comeback. After all, it’s no accident the Saints are 11-4 at home this season and 6-12 away from the Times Union Center. Or that Monmouth has one overtime loss at home all season compared to five in road or neutral games.
Whereas Monmouth had realistic hope of an at-large bid after losing in the MAAC title game last season, it would be a huge surprise if the Hawks hear their name called on Selection Sunday this year. If beating USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown wasn’t enough last March, then wins over Princeton and Memphis aren’t going to get it done this time.
Had Monmouth won the MAAC tournament, the Hawks were likely to land somewhere on the 12 or 13 seed line. The league’s representative is now more likely to end up in the 14-15 seed range, whether it’s 16-loss Siena or its title game opponent, Iona (21-12).
If either the Saints or Gaels go down meekly in the NCAA tournament, the MAAC will have nobody but itself to blame. It could have done everything possible to protect its most dominant and visible team, but it chose to prioritize ticket revenue instead.
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