HUNTINGTON — When Conference USA met for its spring meetings in Destin, Florida in late May, the atmosphere outside certainly felt like the steam of summer.
However, one of the major decisions made at those meetings impacted the fall and winter more than anything.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick confirmed at those meetings that the league agreed to bring back the “Bonus Play” experiment for the 2019-20 season to give the league a two-year sample into the success or failure of the process.
“We are going to do the same pod play in basketball — 1 through 5 with Pool 1 and so on,” Hamrick said. “We are going to re-evaluate it and see if that is something we want to do the following year.”
The experiment came about in late May 2018 at the 2018 C-USA spring meetings as part of the conference’s initiative to increase the number of bids into the NCAA Tournament after the league had seen success with lower-seeded teams earning victories in their opening games of the NCAAs — a statistic that included No. 13 Marshall’s 81-75 win over fourth-seeded Wichita State in 2018.
In the format, the conference’s 14 programs play one another once and their travel partner twice in the first seven weeks of conference play before being placed in groups, according to their seeding within the conference after those 14 games.
Teams are broken down into three groups — 1 to 5, 6 to 10 and 11 to 14 — and the final four games of conference play falls within a team’s respective grouping.
Once in a group, you cannot move outside of that particular grouping.
For example, Marshall actually finished with a better conference record than UAB following the “Bonus Play” format, but the Thundering Herd was sixth after finishing best in Pod 2 while UAB was fifth because it was the final team in Pod 1.
The goal of the altered scheduling is to have Conference USA’s best teams playing each other at the end of the regular season, which could help them with their NET rankings at the end of the year — a ranking that goes a long way toward determining postseason selection in the NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Conceptually, if a team dominates Conference USA play but gets upset in the C-USA Tournament at season’s end, the league would have a better chance at multiple bids for the NCAA Tournament.
“The pod scheduling is based on having two or three really good teams who are in the 30s, 40s or 50s in NET rankings,” Hamrick said. “Those teams in the top pod have to be really good and one has to jump out, so if they lose the tournament, they still have something to get in.”
Hamrick contends, however, that the concept didn’t work last season in part for two reasons: (1) C-USA did not have an elite-level team that was in the upper echelon of the NET rankings as desired, and (2) the teams situated in Pod 1 (seeds 1-through-5) all went 2-2 in pod play.
Essentially, the system works if Conference USA has an elite upper-third of the league that separates from everyone else. However, if there is parity in the league, it actually could hinder the league’s ability to advance.
“It didn’t help this year,” Hamrick said. “Our top team wasn’t high enough to help it work, plus I think the top team went 2-2 in pool play. You have to go 4-0. That was one of the concerns when it came about.”
Old Dominion ended up as the 2018-19 Conference USA champion, but had just a 13-5 league record (including 2-2 in pod play) and was around 100 in the NET rankings prior to Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament.
The end result was the Monarchs drawing a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which earned them a date against No. 3 Purdue, which defeated ODU 61-48.
One major reason why the “Bonus Play” format was doomed before league play ever even got started was because of the collective league record in non-conference play.
In all, Conference USA teams went 76-73 overall, which is just a 51 percent non-conference winning percentage.
“That needs to get better and we’re working to get it better,” Hamrick said.
Furthermore, Hamrick said league officials have also spoken of trying the “Bonus Play” format on the women’s side in Conference USA, which could take effect for the 2019-20 season if finalized.
“We’re looking at the possibility of changing the women’s format to some kind of pod, but that is also still being worked out,” Hamrick said.
After the 2019-20 season, officials will return to the 2020 spring meetings and evaluate the two-year success or failure rate of the format and decide what is the best proposal for men’s and women’s basketball moving forward.
“I’m curious to do it one more year and to really re-evaluate it,” Hamrick said.