If America East's conference tournament were structured differently, Saturday's championship game may very well have been at Stony Brook's Pritchard Gym. (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University)
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just cannot shake the potential injustice that looms large in college basketball. Last night's America East semifinal between regular season conference champion Stony Brook and fourth-seeded Albany serves as Exhibit A.
Playing on their home court despite being seeded fourth, the Great Danes took advantage of an unorthodox tournament setup to defeat the top-seeded Seawolves 61-59, winning the game in controversial fashion on a layup in the final seconds when a travel was apparently ignored by the officials.
The America East's tournament is set up in a way that is unlike conventional conference championships, in that the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds are played on Albany's campus at the SEFCU Arena, while the highest seed of the two finalists; in this year's case reigning conference champion Vermont, gets to host the championship game with the right to go to the NCAA Tournament. As a result, Stony Brook's 14-2 America East record was rendered irrelevant by the pressure of having to play a de facto road tournament game that they trailed most of the way, but fought back to tie before Albany's dramatics.
It should not have to come to that. Take some of the other conferences comparable to the America East as an example. The Northeast Conference, for instance, structures its conference championship where each round is played at host campuses, and its tournament reseeds itself after the quarterfinals a la the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, whose tournament I am currently covering whilst I write this, plays its tournament at a neutral site, this year being the MassMutual (formerly Springfield Civic) Center just minutes from the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It is an absolute tragedy that Stony Brook, and all other deserving top seeds in conference tournaments for that matter, have to be subjected to basically playing on the road in March with their season(s) on the line. The Seawolves, with Tommy Brenton and Jameel Warney leading the way, are just way too talented to have their season end in the NIT. If nothing else, maybe they will get a home game at the diminutive Pritchard Gym, a venue that lacks space but makes up for it with one of the best game atmospheres in the area, especially when filled to its 1,500-seat capacity.
There is only one solution here, and that is restructure the tournament. Either play it at a neutral site or allow the host campuses to get home games out of it. Don't subject your regular season champion to the possibility of playing on the road with so much to lose on so big a stage.
Show some guts, America East.