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The argument for ending Conference Tournaments

College basketball must become a true meritocracy.

NCAA Basketball: MAAC Conference Tournament Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

Allen Ginsberg, a renowned beat poet, published that harrowing verse decades ago as part of a lengthier poem called “Howl”. It’s a call to action against a system of injustice that has ruined some of the better nature of our society.

While I would not dare pen a haughty sentence in which I call myself Ginsberg or claim to create such a masterpiece as he has done on numerous occasions, I would claim that this is my “Howl:”

I saw the best teams of my generation destroyed before March Madness.

Simply put: I’ve seen the system fail far too many great squads to determine that it is something I can continue to praise. The setup of nearly every conference tournament is an affront to the entirety of the sport, rewarding meager success while ignoring a season’s worth of work.

No story serves as a greater example of this unnecessary tragedy than that of the 2014-15 Murray State Racers.

For a few years, Steve Prohm built a powerhouse in West Kentucky. Only three years removed from their 31-2 season in which Isaiah Canaan led them to a top-10 ranking, the Racers were repeating history. Cam Payne was unstoppable, helping lead Murray State to a 27-4 record going into the OVC Championship Game against Belmont.

Ultimately, a 3-pointer with less than four seconds left handed the Racers their only OVC loss of the season. They were 17-0 in league play before then. They were ranked 25th in the AP Poll.

They didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

The thought of a team not making the NCAA Tournament after going undefeated in their conference during the regular season while also being nationally ranked is still startling to those who remember the Racers’ plight.

It was a textbook example of how these conference tournaments serve no purpose for the teams that have already proven themselves to be the best in their respective conference. After all, what purpose does it serve for a nationally ranked team to play in something which, at best, rewards it as it should regardless and, at worst, shuts it out of the reward entirely?

Yet, the story of that 2014-15 Murray State team is unfortunately repeated each year, albeit with a new series of victims.

Last season it was Monmouth, Belmont, and Akron. The year prior, it was Monmouth (again), Belmont (again), Akron (again), Valparaiso, Bucknell, and Winthrop.

Each one of those teams proved themselves by notching stellar conference records.

Each one of those teams was more than capable of pulling off a major upset during the tournament.

None of the teams who took their leagues’ automatic bids made it past the round of 64.

We’re a site predicated on the notion that mid-majors deserve respect and attention. The greatest opportunity that many teams and conferences have for said attention comes during March Madness, when millions are furiously Googling that NEC Champion they’ve never heard of to see if they really can take down a Power 5 team.

However, it’s difficult for many teams and their leagues to command respect when they are sending to the tournament squads that are far from the best their conference has to offer. Instead, subpar teams are sent as representatives, only to be dispatched by a Big Ten team that barely scored 60 points per game all season.

Many conferences and their schools are thus derisively referred to as “cupcakes” for traditionally being weak opponents that others can count on for a win come March.

It’s difficult for this slate to ever be wiped clean unless a string of success arises.

It’s difficult for string of success to arise unless changes are made to ensure that only the truly best teams from the mid-major conferences make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Ultimately, the foresight to enact such reforms is not present within many athletic conferences. We are a community so enamored with upsets that we refuse to see the forest for the trees.

In our love of narratives, we consume ourselves with the tiny ones that occur in conference tournaments. These are upsets that only diehard fans know or care about—yet they are the ones that create a narrative of mid-major weakness that many around the country will tout each Spring.

We’re so hastily concerned with how marvelous it is to see Lafayette beat Bucknell that we forget the potential Bucknell had to make a run in the tournament. We are gluttons for destruction, allowing the footlights of some of the best narratives of March to be snuffed out before they could even be lit.

However, at the heart of it all, it simply is not fair to condemn a team that dominated its conference all season long to the NIT simply because it had one off night in late February. The larger body of work speaks for itself, and those teams that performed exemplary deserve a spot in the field.

Now, this is where I praise what the Ivy League has done, which is find a suitable compromise. After traditionally giving their conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid to their league’s regular season champion, they moved to a format last season where the top 4 teams in the conference standings play in a mini bracket. The winner gets the NCAA bid. It’s a sensible compromise that provides both excitement and a quality representative of the league.

Despite what the Ivy League has done, the rest of these tournaments continue to feed into our addiction for pandemonium, allowing us to sate our appetite for brackets and chaos in the run-up to the main attraction. They tell us it’s healthy to watch as teams that have worked all season long to build up a résumé that’s worthy of a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament are felled by lesser opponents that won 3 conference games all season.

Conference tournaments are an unfulfilling appetizer that only spoils the entree.

They’re the means for destroying the best teams of our generation.