How to fix Championship Week: Reward regular-season champs with automatic NCAA bids

    Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Editor’s note: To jump to the final mid-major top-10 ranking of the 2019-20 season, click here.

It took Fresno State 87 days and 18 basketball games to prove it was the Mountain West’s best team in the regular season. It took one game for the Mountain West to determine that Fresno State wasn’t the team the conference would send to represent it in the NCAA tournament.

We can do better than that broken math. Conference tournaments can be a means for women’s college basketball to innovate. They shouldn’t be an instrument of punishment for mid-major teams that already struggle to compete on level terms with Power 5 peers.

Keep the tournaments. Ditch the automatic bid.

Fresno State won the Mountain’s regular-season championship by three games over its next closest competitor. Only seven teams won or led regular-season races by wider margins. For that, the Bulldogs didn’t get to play at home in the conference tournament. They didn’t receive any byes. All they got was slightly better seeding on a neutral court in Las Vegas, which didn’t do them any good when they lost the final against a Boise State team they beat in the regular season.

So barring an NCAA selection committee stunner, Fresno State will end its season in the WNIT. That’s still postseason basketball, but it’s not what the Bulldogs deserve. And it’s not what is best for the Mountain West or women’s basketball.

None of which is to lament Fresno’s particular plight. Nor is it to cast the Mountain West as some fiendish entity. Because this is just the way it is in college basketball. Again and again.

A season ago it was North Carolina A&T, one of seven teams to complete a conference regular season unbeaten, only to lose in its conference tournament and land in the WNIT. The year before that it was South Dakota, which also went through the regular season unbeaten in its conference but was later dispatched to the WNIT.

That won’t happen to the Coyotes this season. Their at-large resume all but guaranteed them an at-large NCAA bid, if needed, before the Summit League tournament even began. Still, even after her team went 16-0 in the league and outscored conference opponents by 22.1 points per game, South Dakota coach Dawn Plitzuweit reminded players that all of that meant, well, nothing.

“All eight teams have the same allure, the same dream, of playing in the Big Dance,” Plitzuweit told them of the Summit League tournament. “Every single player that’s playing has that goal.”

That is undeniably part of the allure of conference tournaments. The tension of win-or-go-home basketball is entertaining. A regular-season game in January can’t replicate it.

“I think there’s something that’s really special and fun about [tournaments],” Plitzuweit continued. “I also think there’s something very challenging about that as a mid-major.”

But we already know that drama doesn’t require the additional stakes of an NCAA tournament automatic bid. We see it all the time. If Stanford had upset Oregon on a buzzer-beater in the Pac-12 final, the crowd would have roared, the players would have danced and the title would forevermore have belonged to the Cardinal to display in the rafters and in record books.

And yet we would have already known both teams were NCAA tournament locks. A loss wouldn’t even have cost the Ducks a No. 1 seed.

So let all conference tournaments stand on their own merit. Rebrand them as cup-style competitions, where conference teams compete for a prize separate from the regular season — and separate from any NCAA tournament implications.

Boise State is the Mountain West Cup winner. It gets the celebration. It gets the trophy. It gets to go to the WNIT. Fresno State goes to the NCAA tournament.

The world’s most popular sport, soccer offers some of the best known blueprints. In England, the FA Cup competition that runs parallel to and distinct from the Premier League season is nearly 150 years old. Granted, it has its own issues thanks to an increasingly crowded global schedule, but it remains a prize with luster and a tournament capable of producing unforgettable moments like relegation-bound Wigan upsetting mighty Manchester City in the 2013 final.

And not for nothing, but the Women’s FA Cup final drew more than 43,000 fans last year.

American soccer has had a version of this for more than a century, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The NBA has floated ideas about an in-season tournament that would be separate from the regular season or playoffs. And the WNBA will this season introduce the Commissioner’s Cup, an admittedly slightly convoluted method of certain games counting toward a separate Cup final.

For that matter, almost anyone who played even high school sports remembers county tournaments or weekend invitationals. Those titles that had nothing to do with state tournaments at the end of the season, but they offered their own memorable competitive experience.

So while hardly a new format, how about college basketball gets out ahead of an idea for once?

Will there be the occasional coach of a team already bound for the NCAA tournament who doesn’t take a “conference cup” seriously if there aren’t additional stakes? Perhaps, although it’s difficult to find much evidence of coaches such as Geno Auriemma, Kim Mulkey, Dawn Staley or Jeff Walz doing so in conference tournaments over the years. UConn never needed to win one of those tournaments to make the NCAA tournament. It rarely even needed to win to help its seeding. It still dominated because good teams want to win every trophy put in front of them.

Put another way, if South Dakota and South Dakota State met in a Summit League Cup, do you really think it would take an NCAA tournament bid to get the players — or even the fans — to care?

No group would benefit more from this change than mid-majors. With NCAA at-large bids still more the exception than the rule for those teams, sending regular-season champions to that tournament gives conferences the best chance to succeed on the stage that people remember.

One bad bounce, often on a neutral court, shouldn’t carry more weight than months of basketball.

“The consistency over the long haul of the season, especially at the mid-major level, probably is not looked at the same way as the conference tournament champion,” Plitzuweit said. “Because the conference tournament champion is awarded the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can celebrate March moments for teams like Boise State.

We can also send the most deserving teams to the NCAA tournament. The math works.

Mid-major top 10

Here is the season’s final look at the best of mid-major basketball, through Monday’s games.

1. South Dakota (28-2, 16-0 Summit)

The Coyotes began the week third in the nation in overall field goal percentage, behind only Oregon and Baylor. They were third in 3-point percentage, behind only UConn and Oregon. And they were seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio, one spot ahead of UConn. They are as efficient as any team in the country, but don’t mistake that with negative connotations of finesse — they were also 27th in the nation in rebound margin and 35th in field goal defense. Last month’s ranking: 2

2. Florida Gulf Coast (29-3, 15-1 Atlantic Sun)

FGCU scored 105 points in its conference tournament opener. So even after a rare loss in the conference regular season (snapping a 37-game A-Sun winning streak), it appears the Eagles are ready for the postseason. Keri Jewett-Giles was the conference player of the year, while Tytionia Adderly was the defensive player of the year. DePaul and Maryland are the only NCAA tournament locks that forced more turnovers per game this season. Last month’s ranking: 3

3. Gonzaga (28-3, 17-1 West Coast)

Gonzaga will spend the week wondering how it lost a WCC semifinal in which it hit 13 of its first 14 shots and had a 20-point lead against Portland. But that loss won’t cost the Zags a place in the NCAA tournament and, according to Charlie Creme, isn’t likely to stop them from becoming the first mid-major to host since the NCAA reverted to top-four seeds hosting in the opening rounds. Still, as good as Gonzaga is defensively and as balanced as it is offensively, injured starter Katie Campbell’s shooting and ball control were sorely missed Monday. Last month’s ranking: 1

4. Princeton (26-1, 14-0 Ivy League)

There was a lot of focus this season on new coaches at Tennessee and North Carolina, with former Princeton boss Courtney Banghart taking over the Tar Heels. But which newcomer did a better job than Princeton’s Carla Berube moving up from Division III? Princeton is an overtime loss at Iowa away from entering the NCAA tournament unbeaten. And whatever happens in this week’s Ivy League tournament, Princeton will enter the NCAA tournament. Last month’s ranking: 4

5. Missouri State (26-4, 16-2 Missouri Valley)

Sweeping Drake in the regular season gave Missouri State plenty of breathing room to withstand a couple of stray road losses and win the Missouri Valley regular-season title (putting Amaka Agugua-Hamilton right there with Berube among impressive first-year coaches). Missouri State’s ball control has been remarkable of late, committing just 12.8 turnovers per game in conference games compared to 16.8 per game out of conference. Last month’s ranking: 6

6. Central Michigan (23-6, 16-2 MAC)

The Chippewas lost their first three games, albeit against quality opponents in Green Bay, Louisville and Western Kentucky, And they closed the regular season in a rough patch, losing two of their final three MAC games. Between all of that they went 22-1, so we’ll trust that the largest body of work is the most representative. Micaela Kelly was one of the top contenders for mid-major player of the year, but the emergence of freshman Molly Davis has also been essential. Last month’s ranking: 5

7. James Madison (25-4, 16-2 Colonial)

Only the No. 2 seed in this week’s CAA tournament, James Madison is in danger of becoming the best mid-major team in the WNIT. Whether or not it needs the automatic bid to make the NCAA field, it surely rues letting a 19-point fourth-quarter lead against Maryland slip away. CAA top seed Drexel beat James Madison by 22 at home. James Madison won the return game by 30 points. A potential neutral-court rubber match this week might be the game of the week. Last month’s ranking: 7

8. Dayton (25-8, 15-1 Atlantic 10)

The Flyers held their opponents to 50 or fewer points in each the final two games of the A-10 tournament. They’ve done that 14 times this season — and held three more opponents to 51 points. Araion Bradshaw and Jayla Scaife both made the conference’s six-player all-defensive team. And with one loss since Christmas, the Flyers are hitting their stride at the right time. Last month’s ranking: Not ranked

9. Rice (21-8, 16-2 Conference USA)

The peaks and valleys of Rice’s season have been more pronounced than most teams on this list, but the Owls closed the regular season with five straight wins — including the finale against fellow NCAA hopeful Old Dominion — to win the regular-season title outright. That was also the best offensive streak of the season for a team that generally relies on defense. The NCAA tournament needs Erica Ogwumike, the 5-foot-9 guard with 15 double-digit rebound games. Last month’s ranking: 8

10. Drake (22-8, 14-4 Missouri Valley)

Drake should have been more competitive against Purdue and Oklahoma, but there really isn’t an inexplicable loss on a resume that admittedly has more of those than was expected. And with the way Becca Hittner has scored in the second half of the season, along with the way Sara Rhine has produced all season, this remains a team with the ability to score against anyone. Last month’s ranking: 10

Fell out: Bradley

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