OP-ED: Play it safe, NCAA, cancel conference tournaments

Early next month, Loyola Chicago men’s basketball will play for 1,400 fans in a reduced-capacity “Arch Madness.” 

The tournament determines the Missouri Valley Conference team that will compete in the NCAA’s March Madness. Around the same time, more than 300 programs will also vie for a Golden Ticket in conference tournaments across the country. 

One of the best parts about March Madness is how each conference gets one guaranteed spot in the 68-team field. Conference tournaments let any team earn a coveted chance to compete for a national championship. Those guaranteed spots have produced incredible underdog stories, like the Atlantic Sun Conference’s 2013 “Dunk City” Florida Gulf Coast team, or the America East Conference’s 2018 UMBC Retrievers. The Retrievers became the first 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed.

The conference tournament format produces unexpected excitement and gives lower-performing teams hope to cling onto late in the season. This sometimes results in better teams losing out on going to March Madness, but with the revenue generated from holding these tournaments, conferences are more than happy to make the tradeoff, allowing everyone a shot at becoming the next Cinderella story.

But this season isn’t the time to conjure up new fairy tales. The NCAA should cancel conference tournaments amid COVID-19. 

Whether college sports should’ve even happened this year is up for debate. Of course, the NCAA would never forego March Madness for a second-consecutive season. With the tournament responsible for more than 70% of the NCAA’s annual revenue, it can’t afford to. 

The goal for this season then should have been simple: make it to the end as safely and quickly as possible. Allowing 31 conferences to stage their own tournaments leading up to March Madness does not accomplish this. These games are unnecessary — conferences should let their regular-season champions automatically qualify for March Madness. Instead, their superspreader events will put players and staff members at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.

Under the guise of flexibility, the NCAA announced conferences may adjust their policies on who gets their guaranteed spot in March Madness until Feb. 26. So far, all the conferences playing basketball this season still plan to hold their conference tournaments. 

Conferences have adapted their formats to minimize risk. Some will play all games at a single location, instead of giving the higher-seeded team home-court advantage. Some will reduce the number of teams eligible for that NCAA tournament spot, such as the Mid-American Conference which for the first time will only send eight of its 12 teams to its tournament.

But many conferences have made no major changes. With a safer option already available, conferences must be practical and understand that calling off their tournaments won’t make this season any less legitimate.

The potential consequences of playing in conference tournaments are evident. The NCAA requires all teams to produce COVID-negative tests for seven consecutive days before traveling, which means players who test positive during a conference tournament will likely be unable to make the trip to March Madness. This could be devastating for a team like Loyola Chicago should someone like senior leader and top scorer Cameron Krutwig be unavailable.

If a school feels certain the tournament’s selection committee will offer it one of the remaining “at-large” March Madness spots, it may also choose to opt-out of the conference tournament. But teams don’t have much of an incentive to do so when, by not playing, they’ll sacrifice competing together and improving their tournament seedings — all while other teams receive those advantages. 

It’s on the higher-ups to make a change. Instead, the NCAA has ceded responsibility, encouraging all eligible teams to participate in conference tournaments that are still held.

There are too many question marks this close to March Madness. The NCAA had an entire year to prepare for this event, yet something as simple — and important — as the protocol for teams exposed to COVID-19 during the tournament is still a mystery. 

Hopefully, March Madness occurs as scheduled with no COVID-related issues. But with things as uncertain as they are, the NCAA should do everything in its power to reduce risk heading into the tournament. An obvious way to do that is by eliminating conference tournaments from the equation.