Commentary: America East men’s basketball tournament change the right move

Traditionalist America East basketball fans erupted in outrage Thursday after the conference announced the formatting change to its postseason tournament, a move that grants higher seeds home court advantage in the 2015 and 2016 quarterfinals and semifinals.

The new format has its drawbacks, and I can understand why traditionalists like Sam Perkins of One-Bid Wonders prefer the current tournament setup, where all eight — eventually nine  — teams convene in one spot and everyone, as former Binghamton player Mahmoud Jabbi tweeted, has a “puncher’s chance.”

With the quarterfinals taking place at four different sites, the tournament might just feel like an extension of conference play. We won’t get that tournament feel of every team’s fan base staying in the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants, discussing the prospects of the next round over dinner.

Perkins has repeatedly said on Twitter that advocates of the move can’t understand the appeal of a central-site format if they haven’t experienced it. As someone who has never attended an America East tournament game, I fall into that category. I can appreciate Perkins’ position, but I’ve been a proponent of change all along.

The league’s decision comes on the heels of top-seeded Stony Brook falling to fourth-seeded Albany at SEFCU Arena, the Great Danes’ home venue, last March. As I wrote then, the America East desperately needed a formidable team like the Seawolves to go dancing because it has won just one NCAA tournament game since Vermont upset Syracuse in 2005 — the Catamounts beat Lamar in the 2012 play-in game.

Tournament champion Albany ultimately played Duke close, but Stony Brook met the criteria for a double-digit seed upset threat. For small leagues like the America East, one NCAA tournament victory can reap tremendous, impactful monetary benefits.

Ryan Restivo of Big Apple Buckets outlined the financial ramifications of a tournament appearance and subsequent victory:

“Over a six year period, wins from each school in the conference are calculated into units that the conference receives, and the revenue is typically divided amongst the schools in the conference. Entering the tournament the conference earns a unit and with any win the conference earns an extra unit, further incentivizing the league to put their best team in the NCAA tournament.”

That’s one reason that the America East’s decision makes sense. The games still need to be played, but provide your top seeds the easiest path to the Big Dance. Generally, the America East won’t earn a NCAA tournament seed higher than No. 13 — and, at that, only the league’s top team stands a shot at such a seed. Sometimes the league’s best team — like Vermont in 2012 — will still find itself in the play-in game.

Can you really blame the coaches for proposing the format change and the league administrators for approving it? In this day and age, money frequently influences decisions, and with the change, America East teams should all benefit financially.

In addition to splitting revenue from tournament appearances and victories, the league’s top four seeds will likely sell out their venues, where ESPN will also set up its cameras. A televised quarterfinal sellout also displays a better image than a No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup in front of 1,839, the attendance figure for last year’s opening session of No. 2 Vermont vs. No. 7 New Hampshire and No. 3 Hartford vs. No. 6 UMBC.

“That makes the league look small,” Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey said.

As multiple America East coaches have told me, the new format also places an emphasis on the regular season.

“You get a reward for having a good regular season,” Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said.

Dempsey agreed.

“If we’re the six seed and we have to go on the road, that’s what we deserve,” he said. “If you play well all year and you deserve to be the home team, you should be.”

With home court advantage awarded to the higher seed and a reseeding of the bracket after the quarterfinals, the new format clearly favors the top four teams. But that doesn’t automatically disqualify the lower half of the conference, as Perkins and other tweeters of the sarcastic #NewAETourneyRules hashtag would have you believe. Teams lose conference games at home. Last year, Vermont fell to Hartford and Boston University in Burlington. Only Stony Brook emerged with a perfect home slate in 2012-13.

As you move down the ladder of conferences, the postseason tournament carries more and more weight. The ACC tourney champ receives the league’s automatic bid, but at least four more teams are annually bound to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. The America East and commensurate leagues get one bid — hence the name of Perkins’ website — so to allow a No. 1 seed’s full season to be erased by one misstep against an inferior opponent seems somewhat unreasonable, especially when that top seed has to play a road game, like Stony Brook did last season.

The Ivy League actually implements a relatively fair system, boring as it may be. Its regular season is essentially a 14-game tournament, and whichever team emerges with the best record captures the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.

Even that has its flaws, though. What if a key player misses time with an injury? In the Ivy League format, even two games without a star player can be a death sentence.

The America East’s new system will allow a team to recover from an in-conference setback, though it may have to play on the road rather than at a neutral site in the tournament. At least it still has a chance.

And that’s really what this new format offers. Every team has a chance to win. But because the America East will never earn an at-large bid and would benefit financially from a NCAA tournament win, it must provide its top teams with the most favorable path to glory.