One year ago, the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team was the darling of March Madness, having eliminated perennial powerhouse Duke University  in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men's basketball tournament.
VCU earned the right to represent the Colonial Athletic Association by virtue of winning the end-of-season conference tournament, which carries with it an automatic bid to the NCAA's Big Dance. The team also finished the regular season with the best conference record, as it did again in 2007-8.
But this year’s squad has much more to worry about come Sunday’s tournament selection show. VCU lost in the semifinals of its conference tournament and is considered a “bubble team,” forced to wait for an at-large bid that might never come.
Every year, it seems, there is at least one Virginia Commonwealth -- a team that finishes the regular season with the top record but fails to win the conference showcase.
In the so-called “mid-major” leagues, where VCU and scores of other colleges compete, fans tend to prioritize basketball over football (if the programs they follow even have the latter sport). That's what makes weeks like this so agonizing for athletics directors like VCU's Norwood Teague.
“In some ways, it is a little puzzling how the regular season winner doesn’t automatically go after three or four months of being on top, but these conference tournaments have taken hold and are here to stay,” he said.
Lest anyone write off Teague's comments as sour grapes, consider the rest of his response:
"You can complain about it and wish that automatic bids are awarded differently, but I'm not sure it would do much difference. Having a conference tournament gives so many of the other teams hope at the end of the year.”
And that's the bottom line for leagues that elbow each other this time of year for the right to get multiple representatives going after college basketball's pot of gold. Not only do these postseason events ensure days of television exposure for teams that typically fly under the radar, they are invaluable for programs like George Mason University, which, even given its recent tournament success , probably would have been left out of this year's field had it not won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. There's also a perception that money comes into play (more on that later).
Jonathan LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League and a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, said the conference tournament winner-take-all format was set up to serve his league particularly well this year. The league's regular season champion, Butler University, won the tournament Tuesday. But even had the team lost in the early rounds and another team won the automatic bid, Butler's national ranking would have earned the squad an NCAA tournament berth. Why not, he said, give other teams in the conference a shot at breaking into the field of 65?
For one, critics say, it's an issue of fairness. Why should a team that fared best in a round robin regular season not be the league representative? Does it not cheapen the first 25 to 30 games to say one's season could ride on just the last two or three contests?
Jerry L. Walls, a professor of philosophy and religion at Asbury Theological Seminary, and co-author of Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint  , said part of what makes sports interesting to watch is that the best team doesn't always win. Nothing, he said, shows this more dramatically than postseason conference tournaments.
"While the team that wins the regular season conference championship certainly has the most convincing claim to be the best team as judged by the standards of consistency and sustained excellence, they may not be the best tournament team," he said in an e-mail. "So it is not really accurate to say that teams who win the regular season championship but lose their conference tournament are penalized for their performance in one game. It is better to say the tournament winner is rewarded for their grit and optimism, and maybe their good luck."
Mike DeCourcy, who covers college basketball for Sporting News, said the fairness argument doesn't hold much weight given that every member of a league agrees to rules in advance, independent of the NCAA.
"The reality is that all conferences try to be egalitarian, and there's nothing that shows that more than the existence of the conference tournaments," DeCourcy said in an e-mail. "Nearly every team in Division I plays in a conference tournament, which essentially makes the NCAA tournament an open tournament."
Conference tournaments reward the team best able to win the same "one-and-done" situations as they will face in the NCAA tournament, argues Kyle Whelliston, a college basketball columnist for ESPN.com. He added that the regular season champion is always given a seeding advantage in the conference showcase. The Horizon League, for instance, automatically advances its two highest-ranked teams to the semifinals. And the finals team with the best overall record gets to host the championship game.
The Ivy League is the only conference in Division I that awards its automatic bid to the team that finishes the season with the best record. Jeffrey Orleans, executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, said athletics directors discuss the postseason issue somewhat regularly. The league's decision to go without a tournament is in part philosophical -- there's a tradition of round robin competition deciding champions in many sports -- and in part practical -- athletics directors have never been able to agree on one tournament format, he said.
Critics who see big-time college football, in particular, as beholden to the scheduling demands of sports channels like ESPN could well float the same arguments about the basketball tournaments, many of which are held during the week. Orleans said that's a valid concern, as teams in his conference aren't on spring break. Added games would mean additional mid-week travel.
Tom Hansen, commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference, said even if the league didn't have a conference tournament this week, half the teams would be traveling Thursday and Friday anyway to play regular season games. Players seem to enjoy the extra competition, he added, but coaches aren't uniformly in favor of the event.
Hansen said one of his central concerns is player fatigue. "These athletes are challenged to keep up with academics and this hectic schedule from November until now," he said.
But after years of going without a conference tournament, the Pac-10 brought it back earlier this decade. (The league's tournament has a noticeably different feel than, say, the Colonial Athletic Association's, as the Pac-10's top teams can lose early and still expect a bid to the Big Dance.)
"We felt left out and that we absolutely disappeared [from the national radar] without a tournament," Hansen said. "Even in a major conference we want exposure during a week when everyone in the conference is focusing on basketball."
Hansen said the Pac-10's tournament brings in "significant revenue." That's not the case for many of the mid-major conferences, which Orleans said don't count on bringing in money from the event. LeCrone, of the Horizon League, said the tournament is revenue-neutral for the conference, even taking into account television bucks. Teague, of VCU, said the tournament generates some money for VCU, but "nothing significant."
Orleans and others agreed that while the status quo of postseason tournaments is unlikely to change, the access issues aren't going away.
"For a lot of conferences, there's always the question of whether you have the right format, the right location, the right seeding, and are you giving the best experience to students and fans," Orleans said. "On everyone's mind is the question, 'Is this working?' "