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.