CLEVELAND – Poor Bowling Green. The Falcons lost were leading the University at Buffalo with 20 seconds to go in a Mid-American Conference regular-season finale on Friday.
With a win, Bowling Green would get a No. 2 seed and need just two victories to get to the NCAA Tournament. Lose and they’re a No. 5 seed and need five victories in six days to get to the Big Dance. They lost. UB got the great perk. Then Bowling Green got bounced out of the MAC Tournament Wednesday night by losing to Eastern Michigan.
Such a big disparity doesn’t seem fair, since Bowling Green went 11-7 (along with Toledo), and the top three MAC teams (Central Michigan, Buffalo and Kent State) went 12-6. Buffalo fans no doubt would be complaining if the roles were reversed. This is not a new issue, it's just more relevant given the parity at the top of the MAC.
For the MAC, however, the main objective is not – and should not – be running the most fair post-season tournament possible. Giving the top two seeds a pass straight to the semifinals and the third and fourth seeds a pass to the quarterfinals is the right thing to do.
The bracket is unpopular, as evidenced by the comments of coaches on MAC conference calls Tuesday.
Said Bowling Green’s Chris Jans: “We’re one referee call, one bounce, one free throw from being the No. 2 seed. That’s hard to swallow, knowing you have to win five games instead of two to get to the ultimate goal. But we can talk about that forever. There’s no do-overs. We can’t change it.”
Said Toledo coach Todd Kowalczyk: “None of the coaches voted for this format. I don’t like the format personally. I like more of a traditional format. I like how the Missouri Valley runs their format vs. ours. Giving byes all the way to the semifinals is not always good for the teams in the semifinals, either. The difference between the 4 and 5 is probably too much. I’d like to go back to more of a traditional tournament bracket.”
The problem is the MAC currently is a one-bid NCAA Tournament conference. The last time the MAC got two NCAA bids was 1999.
The MAC protects its top seeds. It’s good for the league, especially in seasons in which the top one or two seeds stand out. (This year, there just happens to be not much separating the top five seeds.) Imagine what a shame it would be if the MAC had a dominant regular-season champion that got knocked off in a quarterfinal game. It’s good for every team in the MAC if the tournament champ gets a better seed. Every team benefits if the MAC champ makes a run to the Sweet 16.
If the MAC were a two-bid league, then running a traditional format would be fine. Obviously, the power conferences don’t have to worry about it because their top teams are getting in regardless of whether they get bounced out of the conference tourney.
Conference tournaments aren’t about fairness, anyway. They were created in the interests of money, exposure and entertainment. If you were going to base your NCAA Tournament bid strictly on fairness, you wouldn’t even have a conference tournament. You’d go with the regular-season champ. The Big 10 went for the longest time without one before deciding it was unable to resist the lure of TV money.
The MAC is getting better. Three years ago it was ranked 18th among the 33 conferences. This year it’s up to 11th. If it maintains that ranking, hopefully the NCAA Tournament committee will recognize the improvement in the coming years. If the MAC gets a second bid two years in a row, then change the format.
Until then, the MAC should resist the wishes of the coaches and keep protecting the top seeds.