Reward mid-majors for their body of work

Posted: March 7, 2018 at 2:35 a.m.

Middle Tennessee forward Nick King (5) celebrates as he gestures to the crowd after cutting a piece of the net following the team's win against Western Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Middle Tennessee won 82-64. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Saturday through Monday, six mid-major basketball programs -- commonly known at this time of year as Cinderellas -- punched their ticket to March Madness.

Three of them were very deserving because not only did they win their conference tournament but they also won the regular-season championship, which has come to mean almost nothing if you don't get into the NCAA Tournament.

Murray State, Loyola-Chicago and UNC-Greensboro won both, but now comes crunch time for the majority of those who deserve to be in the Big Dance but need to win a tournament.

It would seem with 32 automatic bids and 36 at-large bids to play with that the regular-season champion on every level would get the automatic bid, making the regular season mean something again.

The way it is now does not benefit a Middle Tennessee State, who has gone 16-2 in Conference USA and 24-6 overall. Kermit Davis' team has an RPI of 28, but if it doesn't win its conference tournament it is likely headed to the NIT or spring break.

Davis and the Blue Raiders have staged a first-round upset the past two years, something you might want to remember if they do make the field and you are getting into an office pool.

Buffalo won the Mid-American Conference by two games and has an RPI of 32, but it could be left out Sunday when the field is announced.

Same for New Mexico State, who won the Western Athletic Conference and has an RPI of 40, which is better than some of the teams that will make the field from the bigger conferences.

In the case of a tie, then conference tournaments could decide whether Northeastern or the College of Charleston represents the Colonial Athletic Association. It also could break the three-way tie in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference or the SWAC, where the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff tied with Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M for second; league champion Grambling is not eligible because of a lack of graduations.

Some of the teams can blame only themselves for not winning the tournament. Florida Gulf Coast won the Atlantic Sun Conference by two games over Lipscomb, and they faced off in the championship game. Lipscomb led by as many as 35 before finally prevailing 108-96.

Rider and Canisius tied for the MAAC championship, but fourth-place finisher Iona won the tournament and bid..

All the emphasis is on making the NCAA Tournament field, not winning a regular-season championship that is played out over a period of more than two months, not just a weekend when a team can get hot.

Coaches lose their jobs over not being part of March Madness, and sometimes they get a raise for just getting there.

It is the greatest three weekends of the year for millions, with the first weekends being the best because that's when Cinderella most often dances.

There would be more chances for upsets by mid-majors if the regular-season champion and conference tournament champion both went. As of Monday, that would mean three less bids for the big boys.

And outside of the schools themselves, does anyone really care if Nebraska is the fifth team from the Big Ten or if the powerful ACC gets nine spots?

Vermont is the prohibitive betting favorite to win the America East Tournament, and Penn is the odds-on favorite to win the Ivy League, but there are no guarantees they will be rewarded for being the best in their conference over the body of work.

March Madness is great, but it might be even greater, or at least more interesting, if regular-season champions were automatically in the NCAA Tournament.

Sports on 03/07/2018