The Horizon League wanted to use an innovative conference tournament bracket for the 2014-15 season that involved double-elimination, but the NCAA did not approve the plan, former Horizon League director of communications Bill Potter revealed Thursday on the Union Street Hoops podcast.
“If anyone really wants the format of it, I would tell them to go study Australian rules football,” Potter told podcast host Paul Oren. “We thought it would have been really cool. I would have loved to see it play out.”
The Australian rules football championship uses a four-round, eight-team format that gives double elimination to the top four seeds and single elimination to the bottom four.
In the first round, the No. 1 seed plays the No. 4 and the No. 2 plays the No. 3 in “qualifying finals.” Also, the No. 5 faces the No. 8 and the No. 6 draws the No. 7 in “elimination finals.”
The qualifying finals winners advance to the “preliminary finals” while the losers go to a loser’s bracket “semifinal” game against the winners of the elimination finals. The losers of the elimination finals are eliminated.
The winners of the semifinals advance to the preliminary finals.
Got all that?
Then the tournament becomes a regular, four-team, single-elimination tournament. The preliminary finals winners face each other in the “grand final” for the title.
In 2014, the Horizon League was trying to create a single-site tournament format to replace its existing campus-site format. The trouble, Potter said, was finding a way to still protect the top seeds and engage fans.
The campus-site format gave higher seeds home-court advantage in the first round and championship game while the No. 1 seed hosted the second round and semifinals. The top two seeds also received byes to the semifinals, and Potter said many people around the conference thought waiting three rounds to see the best teams at a single-site would be a turnoff to fans.
“So we were looking at some different ways that the No. 1 or the top seeds could play in that first round while also being protected and knowing that if they’re playing an eight seed or something of that nature, you’re No. 1 seed is also going to take an RPI hit just by playing that game, so that was part of it as well,” Potter said. “So we came up with a bracket that we thought was pretty innovate, pretty cutting-edge. We were excited about it. It had gone through all of our processes, and then we submitted it to the NCAA, and the NCAA didn’t like it.”
Potter did not specify exactly how similar the Horizon League’s proposed format was to the Australian Football League’s, but based on this quote it sounds like the format was pretty close. Not only was the goal to give the top seeds a buffer with double elimination, but the conference didn’t want them playing the worse teams in the conference in the first round, which the qualifying final format of the AFL championship would protect.
The Horizon League was mere minutes away from revealing the bracket at media day in October 2014 — they even had a veiled easel in the room presumably displaying the new format — but canceled the announcement just before the event began.
For the 2014-15 season, the Horizon League stuck with the campus-site format. Last season, they held a single-site conference tournament in Detroit, dubbed Motor City Madness.
The first Motor City Madness used the same format with the top two seeds getting double byes, but for the 2016-17 season the league removed the double bye. The new protection for the top two seeds is they play their quarterfinal on Saturday whereas the third through sixth seeds play on Sunday. That gives the top seeds an extra day of rest prior to Monday’s semifinals.
The Horizon League has been a cutting-edge mid-major league for a long time. The conference was ahead of its time launching the Horizon League Network in 2006 to stream games online. Other conferences have created their own digital networks since then, and many programs also stream games on ESPN3.
“It would have been another case where people both within the conference footprint and also nationally would have looked at our championship and said, woah, this is different but it’s pretty cool,” said Potter, now the AAC’s director of communications. “Especially at the mid-major level where you’re trying to find some unique ways to bolster the RPI of your top teams but also protect them in the conference tournament, I think it would have checked both those boxes.”
You can listen to the full Union Street Hoops podcast, which also previews Friday’s game between UIC and Valparaiso, here.
Photo: Horizon League