Most of us below the Red Line love upsets in March. They are usually associated with Red Line Upsets that get our teams closer to that magical chance of winning a national title. Whether or not we like the media terms such as "Cinderella", we want to keep advancing which will ultimately benefit all of mid-major basketball. The more our teams advance, the more relevant Our Game becomes to the fickle public that only views us as a foil for the top BCS conference teams.
But sometimes there can be a danger for our teams puling upsets too early. We want our conferences to do well, and put forth competitive teams. If it ends in a loss for the top teams of Our Game before the public is even aware of them, that means low seeds for our conferences and a reduced chance of the meaningful upset we want. If our own teams do not go far, we want our conference to do well. And if our conference champion is a 7 seed, then we know that means that they will likely be a NCAA 16 seed and possibly having to play in Dayton for the right to play a 1 seed.
This has been an issue with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the past. The MEAC has often struggled to earn national recognition when most of their non-conference games are in the form of guarantee game slaughters. Yet the conference has often surprised people in putting forth competitive basketball. The two most recent 15 seeds to beat a 2 seed have both come from the MEAC (Hampton in 2001 and Coppin State in 1997). But in recent years the conference has not been able to produce a similar result. The MEAC has been able to produce better parity lately, but no team has recently come through the conference dominant and ready to take on the big boys. When the NCAA was unwilling in 2001 to remove an at-large bid with the creation of the Mountain West Conference's new automatic bid, the NAACP became worried that the NCAA would pair the SWAC and MEAC champions against each other and eliminate a HBCU before most even noticed the tournament had started. The NCAA silently agreed to not allow for a HBCU "cannibalism game." But this still often times did not save the MEAC. When it was just one P.I.G. in Dayton, the MEAC was present four of the ten times it was held. And in three straight years from 2006 to 2008 the MEAC champion would not make it to the Round of 64. Fans viewing printed brackets often would not have known of any MEAC team in the field those years. When the MEAC team does not get sent to the P.I.G., they usually still get a 16 seed. And a MEAC team has never gotten higher than a 15 seed.
So why does this happen? In each case of a team being sent to the P.I.G., the tournament champion did not win the regular season title. The selection committee awards regular season performance, but with no at-large teams coming from the MEAC the conference's NCAA tournament chances ride on the regular season and tournament champions being the same team. And the MEAC tournament has produced more upsets than most other one-bid tournaments. Despite usually being rated above the SWAC, the MEAC has been sent to Dayton nearly as often. Delaware State produced some very good teams from 2005 to 2007, but the Hornets were upset in 2006 and 2007, and the MEAC champion would subsequently be eliminated in Dayton. This year the feel-good story of the MEAC was Savannah State, regular season champions after having been ridiculed as an independent for many years. But the Tigers were upset in the MEAC quarterfinals by 8 seed Hampton. 11 seeded Florida A&M upset 6 seed Coppin State in the first round, and in this game they would look to take out 3 seed Delaware State.
And many conferences know the threat this poses to producing a quality team for the NCAA tournament. Some conferences such as the NEC and the Patriot League have higher seeded teams host throughout. Other conferences have the higher seeded team host most of the tournament, such as the Big South and Big Sky. Other conferences like the Ohio Valley and the Atlantic Sun cut its bottom teams from their tournaments. And then we have the strange bracket format of the Horizon League and the West Coast Conference, where the top seeds don't play until the semi-finals. The purpose of this is to help get the best team from their conference be in a spot where they can potentially succeed for their conference. Of course, a team can also make money from going to Dayton and winning, which will give a conference revenue shared from two different rounds of the tournament. But it is still ideal to do better than a 16 seed, and a loss in Dayton could be detrimental for the attention a conference receives this time of year.
Of course, the MEAC will never consider a campus site tourney to protect its best teams. As Kyle wrote in the original 100 Games Project, the MEAC tournament is about a family gathering. It serves as a cultural staple for HBCUs, for everyone to unite for one grand event. There were advertisements for various products and merchandise strewn throughout the concourse of Winston-Salem's Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. And that ultimately brings us to what many conference tournaments are about: making money. Tickets for this quarterfinal session cost $19.50, the championship session would cost $36.50 and parking cost $8. And as was covered last year by Winston-Salem NBC affiliate WXII, concession prices are what you would expect for professional sports. I also imagine that hotels in Winston-Salem this weekend were doing very well. The benefits are that the champion has gone through a grueling tournament in order to dance already, and as fans we can see a lot of games. But it is not about us, it is about the game. And is this good for the game?
The Ivy League does not hold a conference tournament, more because of academic reasons than to protect its regular season champion. Could other conferences follow them? I know Kyle's opinion of this, which is strongly against the Ivy League model or even the campus site format. My own feeling on this is that we need to find a way to emphasize the regular season first, and try to balance the regular season and tournaments. The original tournaments were about deciding a champion when travel made it difficult to otherwise find a true champion. But in 2012, we know who the regular season champion is. Conference tournaments today are mostly about the money part, which is Our Game's way of trying to break into the Sports Bubble. And the automatic bid tied in with the tournament is necessary to keep these tournaments financially viable. Many of the "Johnny-come-lately" casual fans in our sport do not start paying attention until March, and we need to draw fans at all times of the season. But I have always liked the chance all teams have of being able to get hot to compete for a national title at the end. If we eliminated the tournaments, many of us would be eliminated in early February or even late January. Late February would become like the ghost brackets for over half of Our Game. So I would like to continue with the conference tournaments, but continue to use the mechanisms already in place to reward quality regular seasons.
And for teams like Florida A&M, Dayton and a conference tournament title is something very worthwhile to play for. The Rattlers nearly lost when I saw them at South Carolina State, needing a putback with a second left to beat a team that would end up losing all of its MEAC games. FAMU finished 11th of 13 in the conference ranked as the second worst in the RPI among conferences with automatic bids. But FAMU was ten improbable wins from winning a national championship. And the Rattlers would prove to be a tough opponent for the Hornets tonight. The lead went back and forth most of the first half, before a FAMU run put them up eight at the break. Florida A&M continued to look strong in the second half, and DSU looked to be in trouble.
But with the slow defensive style Delaware State plays, a close game is likely. This lack of offense associated with it prevented Winthrop from pulling away from its opponents late in games I attended, but the Hornet defense allowed them to come back to nearly steal a win when I saw them at Gardner-Webb. Delaware State would keep the game close throughout the second half despite the hot Rattler start, and DSU would force overtime. It would appear that the favorite had been able to get momentum back, and overtime would be where they could finally come through.
But that did not happen. DSU won the tip in OT, but not much else as the Rattlers dominated the extra period to get the 11 over 3 upset by a final score of 65-55. This kind of overtime game can be a letdown, as the exciting finish you expect to see in a close game did not materialize here. Often I would like to see OT cut approximately in half to create more exciting finishes, as this was a fairly lopsided overtime. Florida A&M would get the win, and the MEAC had another upset.
And conference tournament upsets can be magical as well. I remember watching the MAAC championship on TV when I was ten years old in 1997. Fairfield had finished in last place in the conference after a slew of injuries, and here they were playing to go the NCAA Tournament. Not only did they win the MAAC, the Stags continued the magic by giving #1 North Carolina a scare by leading at halftime. That is what can result from a #11 seed like Florida A&M doing well. Conference tournament champions have proven that they are not afraid to win when it counts the most. But other teams have fared well in addition. Neither of the CAA's Final Four representatives in George Mason and VCU won their conference tournament. And unlike the CAA, the MEAC will never see an at-large. For one-bid conferences, it usually takes magic in both the marathon (the regular season) and the sprint (the tournament) and avoiding upsets like what we have seen in the MEAC.
FLORIDA A&M 65, DELAWARE STATE 55 03/08/2012
FLORIDA A&M 10-22 (6-10) -- A. Stevens 7-16 2-3 16; Y. Crowder 2-6 8-8 12; R. Lewis 5-9 3-6 15; C. Watson 1-3 0-2 3; J. Dean 3-6 0-0 6; D. Bullard 0-4 0-0 0; J. Kennings 2-5 0-0 4; A. Moore 2-4 0-0 5; N. Drayton 2-6 0-0 4; B. Hosley 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 24-62 13-19 65. DELAWARE STATE 15-14 (12-4) -- M. Oliver 3-9 1-5 7; T. Tate 9-17 0-0 18; C. Walker 6-12 0-0 16; J. Threatt 1-7 2-2 5; T. Bell 0-5 2-2 2; A. May 1-4 0-0 2; J. Marcellus 1-2 3-4 5; B. Oliver 0-0 0-0 0; A. Kasim 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-56 8-13 55.
Three-point goals: FAMU 4-12 (A. Stevens 0-2; A. Moore 1-2; C. Watson 1-1; B. Hosley 0-1; J. Dean 0-1; R. Lewis 2-3; J. Kennings 0-1; D. Bullard 0-1), DEST 5-19 (J. Threatt 1-3; A. May 0-2; C. Walker 4-8; T. Bell 0-4; T. Tate 0-2); Rebounds: FAMU 38 (Y. Crowder 8), DEST 29 (M. Oliver 9); Assists: FAMU 10 (J. Kennings 3), DEST 7 (J. Threatt 3); Total Fouls -- FAMU 14, DEST 16; Fouled Out: FAMU-J. Kennings; DEST-C. Walker.