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Monmouth is the perfect illustration of the downside of conference tournaments

The Hawks won’t dance after they outplayed their league for the second year in a row.

NCAA Basketball: Monmouth-NJ at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Monmouth won’t play in the NCAA tournament this season, just like it didn’t last season. The Hawks lost in the MAAC conference tournament on Sunday, just as they did last season, when they lost by three in the title game to Iona. This year’s defeat came in the semifinals, 89-85, to a Siena team that had lost as many games as it had won: 16.

The Hawks were the best team in the MAAC this season, just as they were last season. They won the league’s regular season title by four games this season, after winning it outright by a single game last season. Their combined record for the two years is 55-14. They’ll ultimately have two NIT appearances to show for it, and a Big Dance drought that started in 2007 will last at least for another year.

Is it fair that Monmouth’s out, again? Yes, but also no.

These are the rules of engagement. All 32 Division I college basketball conferences place at least one team in the NCAA tournament. That one automatic bid per league goes to the champion of the conference tournament. All leagues hold one. The most powerful conferences place between three and eight teams in the field, usually, but 20 or so leagues get one bid per year: the automatic qualifier.

The auto-bid is the ultimate carrot. Most every team in the country makes its conference tournament by default, and the existence of the auto-bid means every game technically matters. Teams having dreadful regular seasons are still jockeying for seeding, so they can make their pie-in-the-sky tournament hopes a bit less of a pipe dream. Cinderellas can win these tournaments, and when they do, it’s so fun.

Monmouth’s absence will make the NCAA tournament a little bit worse.

The Hawks are the best team in their conference, and it is not close. In Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency-based ratings, they are 78th in the country. Nobody else in the MAAC is above 106th — eight percentile points lower. Monmouth’s regular season dominance aligns with the analytical view that they blow the rest of the MAAC out of the water.

The adage that anything can happen in March is still true. The team that will go to the Dance instead of Monmouth will be either Siena or Iona. Iona is pretty good, and the Gaels could still sprinkle some magic on the NCAA tournament. Whoever wins the MAAC title will deserve to celebrate.

But taken on the whole, any of those teams should get routed against a decent tournament team. Monmouth would’ve been an underdog, too, but the Hawks would’ve been likelier to treat us to a quality game, and it’s not like they wouldn’t have been a Cinderella in their own right. A Siena NCAA win wouldn’t be any more magical.

This happens all over the country, every year.

Monmouth already has company in its misery this March. Belmont dominated the Ohio Valley this season, but lost to a Jacksonville State team that will now dance instead. This is the second year in a row Belmont has gotten got in this way, after it won the OVC outright last year and then fell short in the league tournament.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like the league tournaments are merely a backdoor. Lots of conferences have close standings, and when the teams at the top of them fight it out, that’s a good thing. When someone breaks in from a lower tier, it’s a capital-M moment, but it logically makes NCAA blowouts more likely.

That’s not always the case. But the theory that worse teams will do worse in the tournament is a generally sound one.

If you agree this is a problem, the issue is there’s no easy solution.

The simplest would be awarding auto-bids based on regular season results. In cases like Monmouth’s, where a team laps the field, that would be a fair way to put the clear-cut best team in the league into the NCAA tournament.

But it’s hard to argue that tournaments are an unfair decider when the standings are close. Wichita State and Illinois State tied at 17-1 atop the Missouri Valley this year, and the Shockers were the league’s No. 2 seed on a tiebreaker. They deserved the chance to beat ISU in the league tournament, and that’s what they did to make the field.

Maybe there’s a sensible middle ground, where the tightness of a league’s regular season standings decides how its tournament bid is doled out. Maybe that’s too complicated, and maybe the current system is the best way to be both fair and interesting at the same time. No scheme is perfect.

But Monmouth’s not going to the NCAA tournament, again, despite being better than its peers for two years in a row. The tournament will be worse because of that, and it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to figuring out who the sport’s best teams are.