By Matt Norlander
They were on pace to be the chic upset pick of this year's tournament. You know how that goes. Every season we get one or two 11s or 12s that become the vogue choice to spice up your bracket. The favorable not-favored foe. Sometimes those picks work (remember VCU over Duke in '07, or Siena over Vanderbilt in '08?) and sometimes they don't (you might've forgotten how many loved Belmont over Wisconsin in 2011, but that didn't turn out so well).
Point is, 2014 was going to be Green Bay's chance to shine, to be part of the talk of the bracket in the days leading up to the Round of 64. This program, which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1996, was most likely going to be a trendy choice, in part because it'd already shown itself to be worthy against some very good teams earlier this season.
Then Saturday night's Horizon League semifinals happened. Playing on its home floor against in-state rival Milwaukee, against whom Green Bay had already lost a home game to, on Feb. 8 by 10 points, the Phoenix lost to the Panthers again. It was just their third loss in 17 league games in the 12th-toughest conference, according to KenPom.com.
By nature of the 73-66 outcome -- in overtime, mind you -- the top-seeded Phoenix will most likely not have their name called on Selection Sunday. After the outcome, plenty of writers and fans on Twitter lamented that one of the best smaller-conference teams -- a mid-major mob that plays with mojo on defense and an appealing, breezy offensive style -- will probably not have the opportunity to give us a March moment.
It shouldn't have been decided this way. Wouldn't you rather see a proven team with very good players (Phoenix guard Keifer Sykes will be the conference's preseason player of the year next fall) get its shot on the big stage than double-digit-loss teams with two left feet such as Georgetown, Tennessee, St. John's, Arkansas and/or Missouri? No question.
But no. A 24-6 team goes 14-2 in its league, gets upended by a 7-9, No. 5 seed with nothing to lose, and it's elbowed out of the Big Dance. A solid squad that a lot of people liked to at least put a scare into a five or six seed is now clinging to a prayer and most likely headed to the NIT. This is a team that beat Virginia, which could be a No. 1 seed, earlier this season. And Wisconsin, which is battling Virginia for that final No. 1 seed, beat Green Bay by just three points.
What happened in the Horizon on Saturday night goes against the best interest of these smaller leagues. It puts an inferior team into the field. What you want is the best representation in the NCAA tournament, therefore having the best possible showing and the greatest chance at a win. That in turn brings your league more publicity and more money.
For the betterment of college basketball, smaller conferences should finally reconsider their postseason process. I'm not suggesting we get rid of conference tournaments. But the current framework is a folly, and there's really no reason why it should continue.
According to a Horizon League spokesman, the conference decides its automatic qualifier. The NCAA doesn't dictate to any conference that is has to award the league tournament winner the automatic bid. This is just something that started in the '60s and '70s, and like many traditions, just keeps on going without much logic or justification. If the Horizon wanted to pass a bylaw in the offseason that stated its regular-season champ earned the auto bid going forward, it could do it. Smaller leagues have the power to change who they send to the NCAA tournament, so why haven't they done it?
Why continue to abide by a system that doesn't reward an optimal outcome? Instead, smaller leagues should agree to the following and make college basketball's best month even better:
1. Win your regular-season title, get the auto bid. The way it should be.
2. If there is a tie atop the standings at the end of the regular season, then the conference decides the auto champ by nature of a one-game playoff, just like the Ivy League.
3. The loser of the playoff is placed into the bracket with the rest of the league's teams, and those teams play for the right to get inclusion into the NIT.
4. If a playoff isn't needed and the regular-season champion also wins the league tournament, so be it. That's two titles to celebrate, the same way the Big 12, SEC, etc., see their teams continue to vie for that second title. With the smaller leagues, if this happens, the NIT takes the runner-up.
That final part is going to have some pushback, I know. The NCAA's selection committee for the NIT has a difficult task because it wants the best bad teams possible, and that usually means known commodities, such as an Indiana or Marquette this season. Being roped into taking a top team from the Big West or Atlantic Sun isn't amazing business. But the NCAA/NIT has made strides to fairness in recent years. As it's set up right now, if you win your league's regular-season title but fail to win the auto bid in the tourney, you get auto inclusion into the NIT. There's no reason why we can alter to rewarding the postseason champ/runner-up.
The other factor in play here that negatively impacts small schools is the unkind grip March has on them due to the anxiety that factors in. This kind of uncertainty (in addition to money, of course) is why so many coaches want to climb the ladder so swiftly and abandon their tiny town teams. Gregg Marshall, who took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments prior to taking the Wichita State job, knew he had to leave in 2007 when his team lost only four games -- all to teams ranked in the top 10 on KenPom.com -- and yet he knew if the team didn't win the Big South tournament, he'd be in the NIT at 27-5.
This year, I fear we've got one or two more Green Bay-like victims still to come. Stephen F. Austin is 29-2 and just ran the table in its league, achieving an amazing 18-0 mark in the Southland. North Carolina Central is 25-5 and went 15-1 in the MEAC, with a win over N.C. State back in November. Georgia State went 17-1 in the Sun Belt, five games better than the team in second place. Vermont, at 15-1, finished two games ahead in the America East.
All these teams deserve to make the NCAA tournament but have to go through the stress of winning one or two more games -- sometimes three -- against league foes that know them inside and out. It's The Hunger Games on a smaller scale, and I guess that's why we love it, but weren't the 16 or 18 games enough to prove worthiness?
The past three decades of league tournaments are littered with proud, inspiring but undeserving representatives from these small leagues. The idea of bid thieves has always piqued interest but never really been appealing. Seeing a sub- or near-.500 team in the NCAA tournament, which happens pretty much every year, is a hair mole on the face of the best sporting event in America. Let's save the Cinderella stories for where they belong: in the bracket that matters most.
Conference tournaments can still be exciting without compromising league integrity, and small leagues have had the power all along. The greatest trick the NCAA pulled was convincing us, and them, that wasn't the case.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.