Minium: Conference USA needs to move its basketball tournament from Frisco, Texas to on-campus sites
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
It was just hours before Halloween when CBS sportscaster Seth Davis had some frightening yet sobering advice for Old Dominion University basketball coach Jeff Jones.
If you want to take ODU to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, “you have no margin for error,” Davis said via satellite at a basketball town hall meeting hosted by the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday night at the Virginia Beach Town Center.
“I’ve known Jeff for a long time, and my advice for him is the same it’s always been. You almost can’t lose any league games. And any chance you get outside the league, you’ve got to take advantage.
“You’ve got to win almost every single game and get to your conference finals.”
Such is reality for mid-majors, who in recent years have virtually been shut out of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Last season, the Power 5 leagues, Big East, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic conferences claimed all but one of the 36 at-large bids.
Nevada, from the Mountain West, claimed the only true mid-major at-large bid.
Conference USA has been a one-bid league since conference realignment led to the departure of Memphis, Tulane, Houston and SMU.
C-USA teams have upset higher-seeded schools in each of the past four tournaments, but the bottom half of the league is so weak that it pulls down the ratings for the top three or four schools.
It also hurts that Power 5 schools, for the most part, won’t go on the road to play mid-majors. Schools from the ACC, Big East, SEC and Big Ten have declined to play at ODU, which annually contacts 30 or more power-conference schools.
That’s why ODU swallowed its pride and signed a one-game contract to play at Syracuse this season in return for a financial guarantee.
It’s ODU’s first guarantee game in decades.
Norfolk State basketball coach Robert Jones (left) listens while ODU coach Jeff Jones makes a point at a Virginia Sports Hall of Fame town hall meeting on Oct. 30.
“We had no choice,” Jones said.
Without Power 5 schools on the schedule, it’s difficult to impress the NCAA committee. ODU will also play Oregon State and could face Missouri during a holiday tournament in the Virgin Islands.
Conference USA took a step in the right direction when it accepted the advice of a consultant and adopted a “flex” schedule. The last four league games of the season will be scheduled in February, with the top four teams playing each other round-robin.
“That will alleviate the chances of actually going on the road and winning a game but losing points because the team you’re playing has such a bad RPI,” Jones said.
But the league declined to take a second recommendation from consultants, who urged Conference USA move its postseason tournament to campus sites.
“I don’t know why we didn’t do that,” Jones said. “We need to do it next season.”
Basketball exhibitions at the Ted Constant Center this week:
ODU men vs. Virginia Wesleyan, Thursday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m.
ODU women vs. Christopher Newport, Friday, Nov. 2, 6:30 p.m.
Jones made a compelling case as to why the league should.
First, it would immediiately make the conference tournament a more more attractive TV product. C-USA's tournament is played on a neutral site, and that guarantees there will be few fans in the stands and that games will be played in an atmosphere that is virtually sterile.
“That doesn’t present the kind of image I believe the league wants to present to fans and recruits,” Jones said.
Moreover, with top seeds hosting games on their home sites, the conference's best teams are more likely to avoid early upsets. Yes, that gives an advantage to the higher seeds. But shouldn't the regular-season mean something? if you've finished in the first division of the league standings, you've earned a chance to play at home.
Conference USA is one of the nation's most widely-spread leagues. It spans from Norfolk to El Paso, Texas, and Miami to Huntington, W.Va. Teams are so spread apart that it doesn’t make sense from a spectator standpoint to have the tournament in one place.
Previous tournaments were held in El Paso and Birmingham. When the home team lost, the fans disappeared. Last season the league experimented by moving the men’s and women’s tournaments to Frisco, Texas, about 40 minutes north of Dallas, to play in the Dallas Cowboys’ training facility.
That was a great move for the C-USA staff, which is based in suburban Dallas, and the four Texas teams. But it's not so great for ODU and most of the nine other schools.
It takes two days to make the 1,400-mile drive from Norfolk to Frisco. Preseason favorites Western Kentucky and Marshall are a time zone away from Frisco.
Regular-season champion Middle Tennessee lost a quarterfinal game last season to Southern Miss. In spite of a sterling RPI, MTSU was left out of the NCAA tournament. It's doubtful that MTSU would have lost had the game been played in Murfreesboro.
ODU was 25-7 and didn’t even make the National Invitation Tournament.
Jones proposes adopting the model used by the Patriot League and playing the tournament on home courts of the higher seeds. Take ten teams, have two play-in games, and then go right to the quarterfinals.
“You’d have to extend the postseason to two weeks,” he said. “But it would make for much better television, and it would protect the top seeds.
“If we end up playing someone on the road, in front of their crowd, that’s great. I’d rather play to a full house than a few hundred people on a neutral court.”
Jones said he was encouraged that the league adopted the flex schedule.
“What the league was doing wasn’t working as far as advancing the cause of getting a second team into the tournament or improving the seed of the conference champions,” he said. “We had to try something.”
College basketball talking heads were stunned when Middle Tennessee upset No. 2 Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA tournament. Some talking suggested that it was the biggest upset in tournament history.
Jones said it wasn’t even close.
“It wasn’t that much of an upset,” he said. “People just didn’t understand how good Middle Tennessee was. Conference USA is very underrated.”
Jones shared the stage at the hall of fame even with Norfolk State coach Robert Jones, who said he’s also had difficulty scheduling games because of NSU’s recent success. The Spartans open at Michigan, a Final Four team last season, on Nov. 6.
They were followed by a panel of sports writers, including Ed Miller, who covers ODU football and basketball for The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, columnist David Teel from the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot and Doug Doughty from the Roanoke Times.
Teel and Doughty have been inducted into the sports hall of fame. Miller eventually will be, too.
Miller said playing the tournament on home courts might be a challenge logistically, with travel arrangements being made at the last minute.
“But what do you have to lose?” he said.
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