By Kevin Sweeney
Over the past few years, there has been more and more discussion about our current conference tournament system. Many have debated whether tournaments should be moved to the “campus site” system, in which teams play conference tournament games at the home of the higher seed in order to maximize home court advantage.
For mid-major conferences, this solution makes sense in many ways. For one, playing games at a neutral site often 3 hours away from most of the colleges participating seems to make very little sense. An example of this would be the Sun Belt Tournament, played in New Orleans. In 2015, the tournament drew a total attendance of 5,418 for the 7 games played, and I’m sure much of that had to do with the fact that only 2 of the 8 participating teams were within a 3 hour drive to the arena.
Others suggest that the conference tournament be played entirely at one team’s home facility, a strategy that was deployed by the MAAC, Big South, and Mountain West last season (the Big East Tournament was played at MSG, where St. John’s plays 6 games per year). This strategy solves the problem of lack of interest, but can provide a home-court advantage to a team regardless of their seed, such as when 2-seed Fresno State had to play 7-seed UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center last season, or when top-seeded Iona was forced to play 8th-seeded Siena at the Times Union Center in 2015.
However, the campus site system is not without its flaws. For one, coordinating team transportation, practice spaces, and lodging, as well as referee assignments, on often just 2-3 days notice can be very difficult to handle. Also, playing a tournament on campus sites doesn’t provide the tournament experience that fans love. While campus site conference tournaments bring a true college feel to the game since students are able to come out in droves, the issues make it very difficult to implement unless the conference’s teams are all very close geographically. It would be a nightmare in the Summit League if on two days notice, IPFW had to somehow get from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Tulsa, Oklahoma to take on Oral Roberts. In order to make it worthwhile to play conference tournaments at campus sites, the numbers would have to show a staggering impact of playing the conference tournament on the higher seed’s home floor.
I examined every conference tournament game in every conference from the past 5 seasons (1,364 games in all) to see if there is a difference in the winning percentage for teams playing on their home floor compared to teams who are simply the higher seed on a neutral floor. Teams playing on their home floor went 138-62, a winning percentage of .690. In simple neutral-site games, which include “home-team” conference tournaments between two neutral sides, the higher seed went 829-335, a winning percentage of .713. Those numbers seem to suggest no real correlation between home court advantage and winning conference tournament games, though the home floor winning percentage is slightly deflated by lower seeded teams being the home team in some cases.
In addition, the last few seasons have been littered with examples of teams losing in the conference championship game despite it being on their home turf. In fact, teams playing on their home court in the conference championship game have gone just 17-15 in the past 5 seasons.
While these numbers do not allow for a team having a “home-court advantage” simply based on proximity to the venue (UAB plays its conference tournament in Birmingham), they do suggest that the higher seeded team will likely win, at home, on the road, or at a neutral site.
So as mid-major leagues look for creative ways to ensure that their top teams are the one to reach the NCAA Tournament, it appears that they will need to look further than the campus site system. Maybe that solution is switching to double elimination, an idea proposed by the Horizon League for its 2014-15 tournament. However, the NCAA allegedly nixed those plans. While a double elimination tournament might take some of the magic out of March, it would certainly give the best teams a much better chance of claiming their conference’s auto-bid.