Tired of low seeds and early exits from the NCAA tournament, Conference USA is ready to try something different.
Next season, C-USA’s men’s basketball schedule will look nothing like that of any other Division I conference. Instead of releasing a hard-set regular season conference schedule, C-USA will seed its teams after the opening 14 games of the conference slate. The conference will then face its best teams off against one another over the next four games, with the end goal of placing multiple teams in the NCAA tournament and securing higher seeds for those teams. It’s the old “iron sharpens iron” adage, basically, with some added strength-of-schedule boost built in. Listen to Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni explain the new system to the Herald-Dispatch’s Chuck Landon:
“We’re going to play 13 games and your travel partner twice, which would be Western Kentucky for us,” said D’Antoni. “Then they are going to seed the schools. If you finish in the top five, No. 1 through No. 5 will play each other for the next four games to get 18 games.
“Like, if you’re No. 1 you will play No. 4. And you’ll play, I think, No. 4 and No. 3 at home and then travel to No. 2. ... There are four games in that five-team slot. No. 1 will play No. 5 and No. 4, I think. And No. 2 and No. 3 will come to No. 1.
“Then, if you’re No. 2 you will play No. 4. It just reverses all the way down until you get everybody in that top group playing each other once. That will give you 18 games.”
To truly understand the genius of this plan, you must also understand the basic scheduling and payout systems of the NCAA tournament. Let’s dive into the weeds for just a second:
The rest of the nation’s premier college basketball programs have both their nonconference and conference slates planned all the way out, minus the occasional early-season tournament. For example, Duke knows the exact date it’s playing an away game at Wake Forest months before the season opens. This is because that’s how it’s been done for decades.
For the major conferences, like the ACC, this has largely worked out fine; they know the Selection Committee, which is in charge of NCAA tournament seeding, will give their best teams multiple top-3 seeds come March, which generally delivers a better chance at a win. (Please don’t mention this to Virginia fans.) But this is about more than a win or two in March. It’s also about the way that NCAA tournament payouts work.
A team is given one (1) unit for appearing in an NCAA tournament game. For each round it advances, it is awarded another unit. A single unit for this past year’s tournament clocked in at around $270,000. These units are not paid out to the programs individually. The NCAA instead groups together the units accrued by each conference; at the end of the tournament, it doles out money to conferences, not schools, according to that conference’s combined number of units.
The conferences then either divvy up the payouts evenly amongst all schools, or pay them to the schools who made appearances—the NCAA encourages conferences to make it even-steven, but not everybody is inclined to listen. Many major-conference athletic departments depend on these payments to subsidize their non-revenue sports and other expenditures. For the Power Five/Six, these payouts are both reliable and extremely important.
But not every conference has this guarantee built in for its best squads. Non-elite conferences simply don’t have the same depth of blueblood programs that the Power Five Or Six, and those lesser conferences tend to be top-heavy. Those conferences’ best teams tend to have somewhere between one and three other good teams to beat in their conference schedules, and this works its way into the Selection Committee’s accounting thanks to strength of schedule and Rating Percentage Index. RPI is a weighted measure of a team’s Division I winning percentage (25 percent of the accounting), opponents’ winning percentages (50 percent), with the winning percentages of the teams those opponents play rounding out the remaining 25 percent.
For a mid-major and smaller conferences, getting any kind of large payout relative to what the big boys make is either the result of a particularly lucky year or the work of one powerhouse program. The RPIs of smaller conferences invariably don’t compare to the power conferences, both because they don’t have early-season tournament runners banging down their doors to rack up games against top-level competition and because their in-conference games add little in the way of value. These conferences are either left to hope that a collection of their best teams somehow Cinderella their way through to the second round as mid-tier seeds, or bank it all on a single breakout team. The more bids a conference has, the better its chance. But it can’t get those bids without worthy teams that have appealing RPIs.
That’s what Conference USA is trying to fix. By having its best teams essentially play a mini-tournament before the conference tournament, it is identifying and doing away with games that conferences schedule based on meaningless East-West or North-South divisions; in their place will be a system that emphasizes important, head-to-head matches between its best teams. Teams won’t have to stake their postseason cases—or, anyway, their RPIs—on their sole mid-season encounter with the one other good team in their conference. Instead, they can look forward to three-to-four games against those teams by the time the conference tournament ends.
It’s a daring maneuver, and if it works it wouldn’t be surprising to see every other mid-major follow suit come the 2019 or 2020 seasons. It’s not that bad of an idea for the Power Six conferences, either—who needs that second UNC-Boston College matchup, really? That said, the bluebloods and dominant powers of college basketball are likely not going to be all that eager to give up their cakewalk wins. They already can claim all the best seeds and the money that comes with it; they need those units, too, and won’t be inclined to share them.
For now, the mid-majors will have to find their own way forward. Conference USA is taking that first step.