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Mid-majors surrender tournament security in favor of TV time

Before Monday night, Drexel University had won 19 straight games and had captured the Colonial Athletic Association championship with a robust 16-2 record. The Dragons had posted 27 victories, including 25 after Dec. 3. And, thanks to the CAA’s desire for two hours of time on ESPN, Drexel might not receive a coveted bid to the NCAA tournament.

Playing before a raucous “neutral” crowd of 11,500 in Virginia Commonwealth’s hometown of Richmond, Drexel dropped a 59-56 loss to the Rams in the final of the CAA’s post-season tournament. Thanks to a sloppy first half, during which coach Bruiser Flint said his team failed to play with sufficient “toughness,” Drexel lost credit for two months of outstanding play and was tossed into the pool of NCAA hopefuls that must survive the unexplainable mathematics, Byzantine politics and hopelessly entangled conflicts of interest to earn an at-large bid that could provide an epic boost to its program and university.

But that’s life in the world of mid-major Division I college basketball. The regular season can be erased – for better or worse – by a mere four days, potentially leaving a desperate underdog deliriously happy and a heavy favorite disconsolate. It’s possible to blame it all on the Atlantic Coast Conference, which hatched the concept of a post-season tourney to select its champ back in 1954. But the real culprit is ESPN, which has convinced smaller leagues to take part in its “Championship Week” proceedings for decades, the better to create programming for the seven days between the end of regularly-scheduled play and the announcement of the NCAA tourney pairings.

As a result, leagues like the CAA willingly discard their intra-league competition for a shot at some time in front of the four-letter cameras. The winner-take-all events provide great drama for the cable giant, which hasn’t been able to wrestle the March Madness TV rights away from CBS (and now Turner) and therefore seeks a sufficient conclusion to several months of college basketball programming.

Each year, teams like Drexel, which craft outstanding regular seasons, are waylaid by a format that allows a school to get on a roll  – often in front of a friendly crowd, like VCU did – and play its way into the Round of 68. So, an injury, a hot hand, a suspension or a player’s personal issues could impact a team’s immediate and long-term futures. All so ESPN and its “family of networks” can have hoops action for a week.

It is impossible to underestimate the value of making the tournament for schools like those in the CAA and other leagues that live below the big time. When Morehead State upset Louisville in last year’s first round, the impact was felt the next day, when the number of people taking tours of the campus doubled. VCU reached the Final Four last year, a performance that led to a significant upgrade of the school’s basketball arena and pledges of substantial donations from several well-heeled alumni. When a smaller school reaches the tournament, it benefits from a ripple effect that influences future recruiting, donations and TV money. Coaches can get big raises or better jobs and players who were previously anonymous can become NBA prospects.

So, the stakes are high, and making the concession to surrender the regular season in exchange for a prime-time ESPN spot seems short-sighted. I’m aware that the only time most basketball fans see Drexel and VCU play is during “Championship Week,” and teams like Valparaiso, South Dakota State and Western Illinois get even less airtime. But is it worth it?

The Ivy League doesn’t think so. The Ancient Eight remains the only confederation that sends its regular-season champion to the NCAA tournament. Although some think it would be fun to see a three-day tourney involving the eight schools, the Ivies remain devoted to the ideal that a champion should be determined over many weeks, not a long weekend. Then again, the Ivy League has some pretty strange ideas about intercollegiate athletics. Like how athletic departments should not operate separately from the schools. And that academics should come before layups or touchdown passes.

While the CAA, Summit, Horizon, Mid-Eastern Athletic and several other leagues send one school to the Madness courtesy of the ESPN plan, the system works against them by allowing schools from bigger conferences to pad their resumes with late victories that can propel them into the Round of 68, even if they finished seventh or eighth during the regular season. So, not only does Drexel suffer for losing its title game with VCU; it also loses at-large invitation opportunities with every first-round or quarterfinal triumph by a school that finished 9-9 during the regular season in a bigger conference. Sorry, Drexel, but ESPN (and other outlets) need games to broadcast.

There is no turning back from this situation. Conferences love the idea of getting national attention, even if for only a couple hours, before fading into the college basketball background once again. Meanwhile, Drexel will sweat until Sunday, when it learns whether its impressive regular season performance matters at all, or if the Dragons will have been slain by the most powerful sword in the media world.

But at least they had their close-ups.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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