DETROIT >> March Madness has lived up to its name in the Horizon League in recent years. In four of the past five seasons, the top seed has been bounced from the conference tournament, falling short of an NCAA bid after weeks of success.
Out: teams such as Valparaiso in 2016, which won 26 games before losing its Horizon Tournament opener.
In: teams such as Milwaukee in 2014, which finished tied for fifth, then won the conference tourney and received a No. 15 seed in the Big Dance, losing by 20 to Villanova.
The trend continued last weekend when Northern Kentucky, the Horizon’s regular-season champion, lost to eighth-seeded Cleveland State in the quarterfinals. It was no surprise Monday when Commissioner Jon LeCrone was asked what his league could do to give the top teams more of an advantage in the postseason.
“We’ve tried every single bracket,” LeCrone said. “We’ve tried every format. We’ve tried giving byes into the semifinals.”
For leagues like the ACC and Big East, a conference tournament is simple. Invite the teams, sell lots of tickets and let the chips fall where they may. But at the mid-major level and below, the postseason can feel like a zero-sum game. At-large bids to the NCAA Tournament are scarce, so whoever wins the conference tourney is often the league’s only representative. The challenge for these conferences is figuring out which postseason format is best for them — how much, if at all, should they protect the top seeds?
Upset bids add drama to these league tournaments, but there are a couple reasons conferences might give their top seeds preferential treatment. There’s a sense that regular-season success should be rewarded. Plus, a league’s No. 1 seed is often the team best positioned to win in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the tensions are trying to create a really good experience that brings fans and has that sort of cache around being this big-time event, while also trying to protect your top seeds,” said Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of the America East Conference. “The reality for the mid-major conferences is that we’re likely going to get one team into the NCAA Tournament, and obviously the seeding of that team is really important.”
The regular-season champ may not always be the best team in a conference — when Florida Gulf Coast went to the Sweet 16 in 2013, the Eagles had finished second in the Atlantic Sun. Still, when a particularly impressive No. 1 seed loses in a conference tournament, it’s easy to wonder what might have been. That Valpo team in 2016 ended up in the NIT title game, while Green Bay, the Horizon’s NCAA Tournament representative, received a No. 14 seed and lost by 27.
In 2015-16, Monmouth earned national recognition by beating UCLA and Notre Dame, but the Hawks lost in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. Contrast Monmouth with Stephen F. Austin, which dominated the Southland Conference that season and received a double bye in the league tournament. The Lumberjacks made the NCAAs, beat West Virginia and nearly knocked off Notre Dame as well.
The top seed in the MAAC Tournament hasn’t won it since 2010. This year’s bracket was set up to give the top two seeds an extra day off between the quarterfinals and semifinals — but that didn’t do much good for top-seeded Rider and second-seeded Canisius, because they bothlost in the quarters.
“If you’re in the first two, you get the day off before you play in the semis,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said. “It didn’t work so well this year, but most years it’s a big difference because you’re playing with fresh legs.”
The MAAC holds a single-site tournament, with all games at one venue. The America East allows the higher seed to host each game. Since the league went to that setup in 2015, the No. 1 seed has won the competition all three times, and Vermont will try to extend that streak Saturday against UMBC.
It wasn’t always this way in the America East. Albany hosted the first two rounds in 2013 and 2014 and upset the top seed in the semifinals both years, even though it was seeded fourth.
“Ultimately, we came to consensus that the most important thing for our league was to protect the higher seeds,” Huchthausen said.
The Patriot League, Atlantic Sun and Northeast Conference also played on campus sites this year with higher seeds hosting. Another option is a hybrid: The No. 1 seed hosts the quarterfinals and semifinals, but if the top seed is eliminated, the title game is played at the home of the highest remaining seed. The Big South did this last season and this season, and the Horizon has used a format like that in the past.
But it’s not an idea LeCrone particularly wants to return to. The Horizon has played its tournament in Detroit the past three years.
“We want to know what we’re selling, and we’ve experimented with this idea where we didn’t quite know where our tournament was, when we played on campus,” LeCrone said. “It was really difficult.”
For leagues that want to play at predetermined sites, there’s another way to protect top seeds — by giving them extra byes. The eight-team Ohio Valley Tournament was held this year in Evansville, Indiana. The bottom four teams played in the first round, with the No. 3 and 4 seeds receiving byes into the second round and the No. 1 and 2 seeds earning byes all the way to the semifinals.
Murray State, the No. 1 seed, won the title .
The Southland uses the same setup at its tournament in Katy, Texas. The semifinals are today, and top-seeded Southeastern Louisiana and second-seeded Nicholls should be well rested.
“Sometimes teams can do well with a week off, and sometimes teams get hot and play well back-to-back,” said John Williams, the Southland’s deputy commissioner. “You would think that it’d give them a huge advantage, but in some cases it doesn’t.”
The top seed has won the Southland Tournament four straight seasons, but over in the Horizon, even double byes couldn’t prevent some wild results. In 2014, top-seeded Green Bay and second-seeded Cleveland State received byes into the semifinals, and Green Bay was hosting that round. Those two teams immediately lost.
The haphazard nature of single-elimination play can be tough to make sense of.
“It doesn’t always work out the way you think it would,” Williams said.