Frustrated mid-major conference officials are taking drastic action they hope will nudge the selection pendulum in their direction when it comes to NCAA Tournament at-large invitations and seeding.
Leading the way is Conference USA, which has dumped a conventional league schedule in favor of a more radical one based on results.
C-USA’s 14 teams won’t know who they’ll be playing during the final two weeks of the regular season until mid-February, when the standings will determine the final matchups. The move is to ensure the league’s best teams are playing each other in hopes of improving their tournament profiles.
Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said the league could no longer stand idly by after watching Middle Tennessee and its 25-win season get snubbed on Selection Sunday last year.
“It’s never been done so we’re a little wary,” MacLeod said. “But we felt like it was an opportunity we had to try. If we keep doing the same thing, nothing’s going to change.”
A handful of other mid-major conferences are altering their league schedules in an effort to improve their NCAA Tournament success rate. Next year, the Sun Belt Conference will debut a schedule that’s very similar to C-USA’s.
Other leagues, like the West Coast Conference, which includes Gonzaga, have implemented a more predictive schedule that tries to pinpoint which teams will be good and makes sure they have a tougher league schedule with the opportunity for more quality wins.
Conference USA hasn’t committed to the schedule beyond this season and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is intrigued by the idea, though he isn’t sold that the league’s bold move will be a cure-all for the challenges mid-majors face.
“It can’t hurt to try and do everything in your power to make sure your best teams have an opportunity for the highest quality wins that they can get and similarly avoid the bad loss that can be a pothole,” said Lunardi, who analyzes and predicts the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Mid-major officials have long said it’s difficult to schedule nonconference matchups against Power Five schools, so improving their conference schedules is an attractive option to help improve their NCAA Tournament profile.
“We struggle getting top 50 and top 100 games in the non-conference, and when we do get them, they’re usually on the road or at neutral sites,” Macleod said. “We just wanted to make sure we’re giving our top teams the opportunity to play as many good games as they can.”
— The first 14 league games are pre-determined, with each of the 14 schools playing 12 teams once and their regional travel partner twice. After those games, all teams will be placed into one of three pods based on the conference standings.
— Two of the pods will have five teams (1st-5th and 6th-10th) while the last pod will have the league’s bottom four teams. The final four games will all be played within those pods.
The idea is that the league’s top five teams would be playing more games against opponents with solid computer profiles. More quality wins could help sway the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee.
Southern Mississippi coach Doc Sadler has mixed feelings about the schedule. He understands the potential benefits that would come from more quality wins, but he’s worried the change might affect rivalries and create problems for fans planning trips to games weeks — or even months — in advance.
“If there’s one positive about it, it’s that the league is at least trying to do something,” Sadler said. “Whether or not this is the right way or the wrong way, we’ll find out in March.”
Travel logistics are a major concern. Conference USA is a spread out league, with teams located from Texas to West Virginia to Florida.
Sadler is worried that figuring out travel arrangements on short notice in a hypothetical matchup between Southern Miss — located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, — and Marshall — located in Huntingdon, West Virginia — would create some difficult travel scenarios.
MacLeod acknowledged there might be some challenges. She said there will be a full week from the time the pods are set until the next game, and that the league will work to make the schedule as travel-friendly as possible.
Whatever the challenges, MacLeod said the Middle Tennessee case last year proved to be a tipping point to take action. The Blue Raiders won the league’s regular season title with a 25-8 record, including a 16-2 mark in conference, but lost in the conference tournament.
MacLeod said the league worked with former coach and ESPN analyst Mark Adams to come up with the schedule. The commissioner said Adams presented his ideas to the league’s athletic directors and presidents, and his data was convincing.
“We’re not going to try something just because it’s crazy and new, but we think it has a chance to make us better and give us more opportunities,” MacLeod said.
ESPN’s Lunardi said NCAA Tournament “bids for non-power leagues are evaporating at a rapid rate” and while he isn’t convinced C-USA’s move will work, “a lot of nerds like me are watching.”
Mid-majors are hoping everyone likes what they see.
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