ODU Athletics

Minium: Key for ODU in Bonus Play is Winning C-USA Regular-Season Title, and Ensuring a Bid to the NIT

February 15, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Whether Conference USA’s decision to add a bonus-play round to the men’s basketball season is a good idea won’t be known for perhaps years.

But give C-USA officials credit for thinking out of the box. There are so many low-rated teams at the bottom of the league that they pull down the computer rankings of those on the top. That has, in essence, made C-USA a one-bid league in the NCAA tournament since conference realignment took place six years ago.

Doing nothing wasn't acceptable. League officials encouraged schools to schedule more aggressively, to stop playing non-Division I schools, or schools from the lowest-rated leagues.

The league also decided to try a bold idea, one that other leagues are sure to copy. C-USA will have its top five teams play a round-robin schedule in the next two weeks and hope that beefs up of the rankings of its elite teams.

Coach Jeff Jones' Monarchs lead Conference USA, and would claim an automatic NIT bid by winning the regular-season title.

By doing so, perhaps, C-USA could become a two-bid league, or so goes the theory. 

Sadly, as Ed Miller deftly pointed out in The Virginian-Pilot this week, that’s not going to happen this season.

Even with victories over nationally ranked Syracuse and VCU and a 20-6 record, the Monarchs are 84th in the National Evaluation Tool rankings, which the NCAA tournament committee will use to select teams. Southern Miss (No. 117) and Louisiana Tech (No. 119) are the two highest-rated other C-USA teams.

You could argue the rankings don't really reflect reality. For instance, how can Texas(14-11), with losses to VCU and Radford, be ranked 35th? That's because the Longhorns play in the Big 12, and they've got a lot of quality victories against highly-ranked teams. 

ODU also defeated William and Mary, Richmond, James Madison and Northern Iowa, all of which have good programs, but are down this season. 

So the bottom line is that this year at least, bonus play won't change the fact that to go to the Big Dance, you’ve got to win three games in a row at the C-USA tournament in Frisco, Texas.

But that hardly makes the regular season meaningless. In fact, if anything it makes it even more important for ODU.

The Monarchs enter Saturday’s 2 p.m. game with Charlotte (at the Ted and tickets still remain) first in Conference USA standings. A victory Saturday means they'll be seeded first in bonus play.

And winning the regular-season title guarantees a postseason bid.

That bid is to the National Invitational Tournament. While some of you might roll your eyes, going to the NIT is a huge accomplishment for any mid-major.

Fans love to recall when ODU played in the Colonial Athletic Association, and that league got multiple bids. But the playing field has shifted so much, and the NCAA tournament committee has so undervalued mid-majors, that they almost have to play a perfect season to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

Last season, the Power 5, Big East, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic conferences claimed all but one of the 36 at-large bids. Nevada won the sole at-large bid accorded a true mid-major.

Below-average teams from the major conferences were selected while really good mid-majors were ignored.

Senior B.J. Stith and the Monarchs, who host Charlotte Saturday, control their own destiny in the Conference USA race. 

That included C-USA’s Middle Tennessee State, which was nationally ranked before being upset in the C-USA tournament and was 24-7. I saw the Blue Raiders play at ODU, and that team would have competed well in the ACC.

It matters not that C-USA has been a giant killer in the NCAA tournament.

In 2015, UAB shocked No. 4 seed Iowa State.

In the next two seasons, Middle Tennessee upset No. 2 Michigan State and No. 5 Minnesota.

Last season Marshall shocked No. 4 Wichita State.

Marshall coach Dan D'Antoni took the podium after that victory and gave the NCAA tournament committee a stern lecture.

"Conference USA is probably the most underrated conference in the country," he said.

The Monarchs (25-7) weren't even invited to the NIT. They were among the last teams eliminated.

"How do you get left out of a tournament at 25-7?" D’Antoni asked

That’s a question that ODU fans hope nobody asks this season.

I figure the Monarchs need to beat Charlotte, then take three of the four games in bonus play, to win the regular-season crown.

Going to a conference tournament on the postseason bubble puts a ton of pressure on players and coaches. Win the regular-season title and you’re headed to the NIT. You can enter the conference tournament loosey-goosey, as Dick Vitale likes to say, and play without fear.

As Miller wrote, bonus play won’t send a second C-USA team to the NCAA tournament. But it could very well send ODU to the NIT.

And that’s something that fans at any mid-major should celebrate.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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