Those coveted early-round conference tournament byes

The Pac-12 Conference canceled its games postponed for Covid, evidently. possibly to Washington State’s (and also Utah’s) chagrin. Entering this weekend’s play, the Cougars are in 4th place with an 8-5 record, which confers a priceless first-round bye in the conference tournament.

I think I’m with many people who don’t like the notion of post-season conference tournaments, for at least four reasons:

1) A conference tournament diminishes the value of finishing on top of the league by providing a second pass into the NCAA tournament;

2) A conference tournament reduces the number of days available for in-conference play. The leagues with 12 could probably arrange a complete double round-robin if not for the tournament;

3) A conference tournament dilutes the dramatic tension of the NCAA tournament by introducing three or four additional rounds of single elimination play;

4) Not every booster has the time and money to plan for two post-season tournament trips. The conference tournaments must be lucrative for people who don’t care about families, alumni, media, and so on.

It’s a combination of 1) and 3) above that causes most of the headaches. How many teams march through the regular season but slip once in the conference tournament — perhaps in a “one bid” conference!?

To give incentive to win the regular season title, conference officials structure their post-season tournaments so league leaders receive one or two byes into later rounds. This has a weird effect of synonymizing “league champion” with “grantee of early tournament bye(s)”, which somehow lessens the league champion title even further. Coaches don’t talk about “winning the conference”, they talk about “earning byes”. (Oh, consider 4) above when the league confers multiple byes — are folks supposed to plan to attend the first round, or wait to see where their teams wind up … and risk losing any discounts on travel.)

Take the Pac-12 Conference, where four teams earn a first-round bye. Three teams — Utah, UCLA, Arizona St. — are in the middle of the pack at .500 (or one game above .500), all within reach of Washington St. in 4th place with an 8-5 record.

Utah is behind WSU at 6-5, two games back in the win column, but one game back in terms of “games behind”. Let’s say WSU splits its last four games (vs. the Arizonans, and at the Northern Californians), while Utah goes 3-1 (at Southern Californians, vs. the Oregonians).

That would land WSU at 10-7, and Utah at 9-6. They’re tied in “games behind”, but Utah is ahead by 12/100ths in winning percentage, .600 to .588. I imagine the Cougar family must then grin and bear the way the Covid ball bounced. (On the bright side, as the tournament’s 5th seed, WSU’s likeliest opponent at #12 is Washington, fueling the interstate rivalry with an elimination game.)

Then there’s Arizona St. The Sun Devils have played just nine games, and if they win four against the Washingtons and SoCals, they land on 8-5. That’s *also* tied with 10-7 and 9-6 in “games behind”, but the .615 win percentage places them ahead of WSU and UU.