The Daily Gamecock

Column: Conference tournaments must be played to give teams shot at NCAA Tournament

<p>FILE— A referee holds a basketball under his arm during a timeout in a 2019 game at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC.</p>
FILE— A referee holds a basketball under his arm during a timeout in a 2019 game at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC.

Conference tournaments are a huge part of the selection process for the NCAA Tournament, and without them, teams lose their opportunity to make a run and secure a bid into the NCAA Tournament.

If conference tournaments are canceled, the team that wins the regular season gets the automatic bid for the conference. Conference tournaments put teams in a position where they must play their best, allowing the selection committee to see what each team is like in a win-or-go-home situation and to choose the best teams to compete.

Recently, the NCAA released a set of guidelines that all teams participating in the 2021 Division I Men's Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis must follow. This included a rule that said all team personnel attending the 2021 tournament must pass seven consecutive COVID-19 tests before they can depart for Indianapolis.

Conference tournaments are played the week before Selection Sunday. Coaches and personnel are worried that by playing conference tournaments, players are at risk of testing positive and missing the NCAA tournament. 

According to a CBS poll of 41 head coaches, about one in four believe conference tournaments should be canceled, including South Carolina head coach Frank Martin.

"I've never understood conference tournaments," Martin said in an interview with CBS Sports. “I wouldn't be against taking a deep breath this year and saying, 'You know what, let's utilize that time to try and make up games for the ones we missed and let's just crown a regular-season champion.'"

Others around the league feel that in the end, the players will decide to play and that tournaments will go on. 

"This has been player-driven for us," Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. "If it continues to be player-driven, then I think at the end of the day players are going to want to play every possible game they can play." 

Some people around the NCAA believe teams who know for sure they will be in the tournament should opt-out of conference tournaments to avoid this risk.

If the top teams, or any team, want to stay out of the tournament because of fear of catching the coronavirus before the NCAA tournament, then let them. However, this should not stop other teams from competing in a conference tournament and potentially taking the spot of one of those teams that decided to opt out. 

South Carolina could benefit from a run in the SEC Tournament if it has any aspirations to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Without the SEC Tournament, there is no hope to do that.

Conference tournaments also generate revenue, something the NCAA is in need of after its revenue fell $600 million in 2020 due to the cancellation of March Madness.

Some conferences have already found ways to protect team personnel during tournaments. 

The Northeast Conference will play a four-team tournament instead of a 10-team tournament. The ACC moved its tournament from Washington, D.C., to Greensboro, North Carolina. The Southwestern Athletic Conference has made plans that include an eight-team tournament that would not include the league's bottom two finishers.

Other solutions could be to hold conference tournaments in a bubble. Conferences playing at neutral sites should be doing this already anyway. If they are not playing at neutral sites, home teams need to enforce bubble mentality on their players for the duration of the tournament.

A bubble would reduce the spread and maybe even fully prevent any outbreaks. The NCAA couldn’t do it for the regular season because you can’t keep college students in a bubble. However, it could work during tournaments. It would create a safe environment where players and personnel wouldn’t have to stress about coronavirus as much.

Teams should also be tested every day before the tournament starts and every day throughout the tournament. If a player tests positive, that player and their contacts must be isolated.

Conferences will have to take steps to keep COVID-19 out of their tournaments. If not, cancellation is possible, but it should be treated as a last resort, not the first answer.


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