Automatic NCAA tourney bids should go to regular-season champs

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Oakland owned the Summit League this season. The Grizzlies lost just one conference game. That 17-1 mark placed them a full four games ahead of the league’s runner-up, Oral Roberts.

Yet, if they falter during the conference tournament, they probably won’t make the NCAA tournament. That’s what the majority of mid-majors face in March:

No matter how well you’ve played in January and February, one bad game can keep you from the big dance.

“It’s been our goal the whole season, and we know this is the most important part,” senior Keith Benson told the Detroit Free Press. “The regular season is just to get a seed. To get a one or two seed so you can get that day’s rest (on Sunday). We’re trying to make our season a success now.”

That’s brutal.

By any measure, Oakland (23-9 overall) has had a good season. It acquitted itself well during a brutal non-conference schedule – even beating Tennessee – and crushed its league foes. Yet to be denied a chance at college basketball’s biggest stage if it loses the conference tournament title game tonight, well, it’s hard to stomach.

No wonder teams celebrate conference championships like this. It’s like winning the lottery.

The Ivy League has it right. The regular-season champ should get the automatic bid.

The conference tournament champ can have a trophy.

There’s no denying conference tournaments are a fantastic part of March. They’re entertaining, dramatic and the perfect way to kick off the month. But they only help underperforming schools from major conferences and hurt the mid-major schools. The big schools can get marquee wins, while the small ones either go out early or don’t record any résumé-building victories.

Sure, teams can sweep the regular-season and conference tournaments – Belmont did it this year – but it doesn’t always happen. Coastal Carolina was three games better than the Big South this season, but it’s headed to the NIT. Fairfield won the MAAC by two games, yet will be lucky to make the NIT. The same thing could happen to Utah State (28-1, 15-1) if it doesn’t win the WAC.

You want the best teams in the NCAA tournament? Put those teams in. They earned it.

“I think the hardest thing to do is achieve the consistency to win a regular-season championship,” former Vanderbilt coach and Kentucky AD C.M. Newton told the Birmingham News. “Basketball, when you get to postseason play, is a tournament game. But the best team doesn’t necessarily win that. I guarantee you the best team wins over the long haul in the regular season.”

Studies back up Newton’s claim.

In simulated NCAA tournaments, the best team won just 34 percent of the time. And in conference tournaments – often held at one of the league’s home courts – that number’s even lower. Thus far this season, only the regular-season champs from the Atlantic Sun, Ohio Valley and West Coast won their tournaments. The other five featured non-top seeds winning.

The conference tournament doesn’t have to go away, either.

It’s still important to the teams and players – just ask ‘em – and can be useful in instances where teams tie for the regular-season title. They can separate themselves by having a better conference tournament. It’ll still provide plenty of suspense and memorable plays, just without the brutal outcome.

So do the right thing. Award auto bids to regular-season champs. That’ll ensure less bellyaching about a weak bubble and reward teams that played best during January and February. It’ll also make the NCAA tournament better by ensuring there aren’t any flukes in the field.

And isn’t that what this should be about? Making the Big Dance as good as it can be?

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.