Mar 13, 2012

It's time to seed the NWAACC tournament

Tacoma head coach Carl Howell and assistant RJay Barsh celebrate the 2012 NWAACC title.

KENNEWICK, WASH. - In the hours following Tacoma Community College’s NWAACC championship, a number of tournament volunteers, the executive director, and even an official could all be seen out together at one of the local restaurants, celebrating another successful year. Several minutes into the festivities, a man wearing a shimmering, dark blue suit and flashy ring sauntered through the doors, his normally grim face split with a smile when he acknowledged the cheers and applause from all those that recognized him.
            The man, who had a group of young men in tow, was none other than Carl Howell, the head coach of the NWAACC champion Tacoma Titans. He walked down the table of volunteers, shaking hands with many until he reached executive director Marco Azurdia, where he stopped to exchange a few words before making his way to another corner of the establishment where his team and assistant coaches as well as his wife and son awaited him.
Tacoma head coach Carl Howell
            It wasn’t until after the hubbub had subsided that there was enough of a pause in the maelstrom for a quick word of congratulation to the champion coach, who had gone exactly ten years between titles. Talk quickly turned to the set of power rankings that I write every two weeks, and how Howell appreciated the consideration of his team in the rankings. Then Howell said something I didn’t expect, but something that got me thinking.
            What Howell mentioned was that it may be time to seed the tournament, and not in the way it is now. The current format pits the Northern region against the Southern Region and the East against the West. The top finisher in one region takes on the fourth place finisher in the other, and the second place team takes on the third place squad.
            In a perfect world, that should seed the tournament equally. The opponent in the first round of the tournament is solely based on how a team performed in the regular season. However, the world isn’t perfect. The wrench that is thrown into this system is that the regions are far from equal, and so in some cases, the team that took fourth in the East may actually be better than the team that won the West.
            That disparity is painfully obvious on the women’s side, enough that several league officials said they weren’t at all surprised when seven of the eight teams from the Northern and Western regions were beaten on the first day, only to see the remaining team lose on the following day.
            The method to fix this broken system is simple, and it’s already used at the college level for the NCAA basketball tournaments. What happens is that the winner of most of the conferences gets an automatic bid to the tournament. The rest of the bids are called “at-large bids” and are chosen by a selection committee. The committee is made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners from across the country, and they decide which teams are the most deserving to receive an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Tacoma Guard Mark McLaughin
            Gone would be the East vs. West days, it would be a system exactly like the NCAA where the first seed would play the 16th and so on. It wouldn’t matter which region a team came from, it would matter how good that team actually was.
            The problem with that system is that it is subjective to the people sitting on the committee, and it is entirely up to them to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Once the teams are chosen, coaches, players and fans alike would argue that their team deserved a higher seed than they were given. It’s not based solely on wins and losses, and so the ambiguity of the selection would unsettle some until the system had time to take hold.
            Despite its drawbacks, a system like this should effectively eliminate the imbalance between the conferences. Because it would be in accordance to rankings and not records, there wouldn’t be as many first round match ups that pitted two top eight teams against one another. Sure, there would still be plenty of Cinderella moments, such as this year when the Clark and Whatcom men were both ranked No. 1 and lost in the first round. That’s just basketball. But it would mean that the sixteen best teams would get in to the tournament, instead of a good team being left at home because they finished fifth in the best region in the league.     
            At the end of the day, this system works. A champion is crowned every year and there aren’t too many complaints about how it works. That said, as the league continues to try to grow in popularity, they may need to make the switch to a format that people are used to and understand. Besides, people could start having selection Sunday parties.

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