The Big East basketball conference has 16 teams. Member teams play 18 regular-season games against each other. And then, all teams are invited to play in the Big East Tournament to determine the conference champion.
Last year, UConn had a conference record of 9-9 and was the ninth-seeded team entering tournament play. They won the conference championship, were named a #3 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 21-9 record, and went on to win the national championship.
This year, UConn had an 8-10 conference record, good for tenth place. Nevertheless, they were invited to the NCAA Tournament as a #9 regional seed with an overall record of 20-13.
What does this mean to the casual sports fan? Will they have college basketball games on television during the regular season?
After all, UConn's past two seasons suggest the regular season doesn't matter much.
Perhaps if the format was different, UConn may have played the regular season differently.
In the NCAA Tournament, conference champions get an automatic invitation. In all conferences except the Ivy League, the champion is chosen by a conference tournament instead of regular-season standings.
But the least the NCAA can require is to make the regular-season standings relevant.
One way to do that is to require that only teams in the top half of the conference standings can be invited to the conference tournament, and that all at-large invitees to the Tournament must likewise have finished in the top half of their conference standings.
In theory, this suggests that UConn would not have made the NCAA Tournament this season and last. But I'm not taking anything away from their accomplishments. They did what they had to do to earn NCAA tournament bids both years under the selection rules then in place.
But imagine if they had to fight to even get into their own conference tournament, and that this was the minimum necessary to earn an NCAA berth.
The regular season games would get bigger. MUCH bigger. Teams that play in major, competitive conferences would know they would have to pile up the wins to get in. Games that might be relatively meaningless today will garner greater interest. Imagine, for instance, a conference with 12 teams. Only six can get an invitation to the conference tournament. This means that, for instance, a regular game between the 6th-place and 7th-place teams could be a de facto "elimination" game. The conference regular season will feature important games of national interest all through January and February.
To add to the competitiveness, the "First Four" games should be eliminated. The 68-team NCAA Tournament should be reduced to 64. That allows everyone to fill out their brackets early in the week. But as it is right now, there is a "play-in game" for a #12 seed that will be played Wednesday night, when the 64-team brackets begin their games on Thursday. This adds some degree of inconvenience to fans who like to participate in pools.
Teams should earn their way into the NCAA Tournament by scheduling a tough non-conference schedule and posting a successful record within their own conference. If every team treated every game like a "play-in" game, the NCAA would not only have a great tournament, but a great regular season as well.