With football season almost behind me, it is time for me to focus on basketball season. With Eastern Michigan starting with eight wins and one loss, it got me to thinking about things. One of those things is about what matters more.
To begin this story, we go back to December 9th, 2014. Eastern Michigan had just vanquished the team on the western side of Washtenaw County. They were riding the crest of a wave and would enter Mid American Conference play at eleven and two. It looked like it might finally be the year where they would emerge as MAC Champions and go to the big dance.
They would open MAC play at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti against Ball State on January 7, 2015. They would also fall against those same Cardinals in overtime. Not to worry, right? They would fall to Miami and Kent State in the next two games but they would beat Northern Illinois on their return to Ypsilanti. When all was said and done, they ended up having to beat Miami in the play in game to advance to Cleveland. They would end up falling to Toledo in the quarterfinals and ended up in a pay to play tournament.
My experience is with Eastern Michigan but there are probably a few other teams that fit in a similar pattern. They do well in their non-conference play and then falter when they start playing in-conference. Many of these teams play in a single (or occasionally double) bid conference where only the conference champion and/or the tournament champion gets to go to the NCAA tournament.
So why does any of this matter?
In an age where you have the NIT, CIT and CBI Tournaments, more teams will make it to a post season tournament than ever before. So any school can argue they’ve got post-season success behind their program. Hang the banner!
But ultimately, it is the NCAA Tournament that really matters for changing the hearts and minds of the skeptical regarding a team’s success. I guess getting an invitation to the NIT is still pretty impressive but the other two are essentially pay-to-play tournaments, which at the end of the day, is probably more trouble than it’s worth. (This isn’t to discount the work it takes to get to this position; it’s just a question of value.)
I would rather see a team do okay in what amounts to the “preseason”. Work on getting tuned up and then winning their conference. Granted, if they do well in the pre-season and okay in their conference, they might find themselves on the bubble but that seems to be rare these days. It’s still a zero-sum result at the end of the day: win the conference tournament and you’re in.
So perhaps, we ultimately have to look at the season schedule differently.
Schedule in-season tournaments. Find a couple of lower-level in-state foes and play them as a warm-up. Find teams your fans will flock to travel to or watch on television. Give them a reason to be optimistic and feel progress is being made by scheduling better.
Even if the season ends up being a dud (due to the life of being a mid-major,) at least there might be something positive to cheer about.