In what feels like an annual rite of spring, this past Sunday night I found myself listening to the University of Vermont men’s basketball team blowing their chances to get to the NCAA tournament to a lesser Albany team (this has happened four times in eight years). Though Vermont has been to the NCAA tournament five out of the past eleven seasons, only once did they win the regular season crown and advance to the big dance. Three times they won the regular season crown and did not advance. The conference tournament giveth, the conference tournament taketh away. And it’s bullshit.

I want to make it very clear that Vermont is not the only team this has happened to. Stony Brook had won the conference during the regular season the past two years, and has yet to play in the NCAA tournament. Vermont has stole bids from Boston University more than once. I am not just being a Vermont homer. I am also out for justice, on behalf of all the little guys — in Vermont’s America East conference or not — who get screwed by conference tournaments.

This season, Vermont had won the America East regular season conference title (15-1) and left little doubt as to who was the best team in the conference, with an average margin of victory of 22 points. Their only loss came on the road, 64-67 against second-place Stony Brook, who Vermont ended up beating by 16 on senior night in Burlington. None of that mattered the other night, because UVM was playing Albany — a team they had beaten by 30 at home and 10 on the road earlier in the season — and the winner was to move on to the conference championship, and the winner of the conference championship is to be the only team to make it to the NCAA tournament from a perpetually terrible conference that has never garnered more than the one automatic bid reserved for such lowly conferences. (Just so we are on the same page: 32 bids to the NCAA Tournament are given to the winner of the 31 conference tournaments, plus the winner of the Ivy League. The rest of the 36 bids go to the teams deemed worthy by a group of old, white men in suits [though I’m sure there are token black guys to keep them honest]. These are referred to as “at-large bids”).

Albany is a garbage basketball team. I say this fully aware that it will come off as sour grapes, and I could care less. They are the fourth-best team in fourth-worst conference in the country. Their RPI — a ranking based on your record, opponents’ records, and opponents’, opponents’ records — is 212 out of 346 teams. In other words, if 68 teams make the NCAA tournament, Albany absolutely should not be one of them. But thanks to the conference tournament system, they have that chance. In fact, just last year they did the same damn thing: as the fourth-seed, they upset top-seeded Stony Brook in the second round and went on to beat UVM in Burlington and then got to play in the real tournament. And I’m not saying Vermont is a great basketball team, but they are better than Albany. Despite going 15-1 in their tremendously awful conference, the Catamounts’ high point this year came when they pushed Duke to the limit at Cameron Indoor, losing 90-91 on the last possession of the game. Coach K would later imply it was the worst he’d ever seen Duke play. But that was the high point for Vermont. Losing to Albany in the tournament for the second straight season was, obviously, the low point.

I am pissed about the loss, and I haven’t even told you the kicker. For god-knows-what-reason, for the past two seasons, the quarterfinals and semifinals of the America East tournament are played ON ALBANY’S HOME FLOOR. Meaning, Vermont, who smacked Albany around two separate times this season, had to play the only games that really matter this season, up until that point, in a hostile environment because America East is such a broke conference that they cannot pony up the car-wash/bake sale/50-50-raffle-ticket profits necessary to rent a neutral site for two goddamn days in order to make this a fair tournament. In years past, the tournament had been hosted by Hartford (who would always scare the shit out of superior opponents despite being pretty bad), and, of course, Albany.

If they really can’t find a neutral site, I understand. I have a proposal that makes none of that necessary: the Ivy League system.

Until 1998, the Big Ten had no conference tournament. Until 2002, neither did the Pac-10 (I don’t care what they call it now, it’s the Pac-10). Both conferences finally caved. The Ivy League still does not hold a conference tournament. The regular season winner of the Ivy League goes to the NCAA tournament. The other teams technically have a shot at earning an “at large bid,” but they never will, due to a weak strength of schedule.

The arguments for a conference tournament, I suppose, go like this: conference tournaments are exciting (they are), lucrative (I think they are), a chance for both bigger and smaller conferences to get some exposure (they are), and a last chance for under-performing teams to show that they are the team that belongs in the NCAA tournament (which is bullshit). In power conferences it doesn’t make much of a difference: there are the four to eight teams that are probably going to make it anyway, and if another team sneaks in by pulling off an impressive run through the conference tournament, they probably won’t take away a spot away from a conference compatriot.

But what the conference tournaments do for so-called “one-bid leagues” is render the regular season insignificant, since none of the teams will be presented an at-large bid if they lose during their conference tournament. Particularly in leagues that play the tournament at a predetermined neutral site, garnering the top seed basically dictates only who you will play and what color your jerseys will be. While who you are playing is not entirely insignificant, at some point during the tournament you are going to have to play a good team. And in America East, it might be a good team on their home court. Or it might be a bad team, on their home court. I suspect that almost no conferences other than America East have a system where a random school from the conference hosts the tournament, because it is such a laughably stupid idea, though I am not going to look up whether that is true or not (deal with it).

And even when you play your conference tournament on a truly neutral floor, upsets are bound to happen. And when upsets happen, teams that were poor during the regular season have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. What a great thing, you say? No, it’s fucking stupid. Not only is it unfair to the team that won the regular season championship — the team that established it was the best team in the conference over the course of more than a dozen games played both home and away —  it is not in the league’s best interest: why would you want to send a middling team from your conference to go play the big boys in a nationally televised game? It makes your conference look bad.

The answer, as with anything that has to do with the NCAA, is money. Fans actually care about conference tournaments. They can tune out their school’s basketball team all season long, waiting until the one-and-done nature of the postseason comes around. Then they can tune in, go to the games, or start buying up NCAA-sanctioned gear that lets people know they sort-of-care about college basketball when it comes to March. Conferences get to cut deals with ESPN, CBS, and other radio and television networks that air tournament games. They get lots of money for that. They have no incentive for changing the system. In fact, you can bet your behind that when the Big Ten and Pac-10 finally caved, it was due to the potential profit provided by such an arrangement.

But the Pac-10 doesn’t have to worry about a team going 15-1 in conference play, nearly beating Duke on the road, and not making the NCAA tournament. Nor does the Big Ten. This is a unique problem that faces the 20 (or so) conferences that will never get an at-large bid. While these conferences starve for the attention that comes with a conference tournament championship — even America East gets theirs aired on ESPN2 — what they should really be starved for is their best team competing in the NCAA tournament, with a legitimate shot at an upset.

That one time Vermont won the regular season tournament, and the conference tournament, do you want to know what happened?

Merry March.

Photo courtesy of the Burlington Free Press.