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The beauty and beast of the Southern Conference men's and women's basketball tournaments has always been that only the winner is assured of a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

There's nothing against the rules that a second team from the SoCon can't go. It's just never happened. It's literally been a win-or-go-home scenario regarding a trip to March Madness for as long as the league's been in existence.

But as of last Friday, the NCAA Selection Committee slightly altered that. It announced that every Division I conference can choose EITHER its regular-season or tourney champ to earn its automatic bid, though that decision must be finalized by Friday, Feb. 26.

Exactly why leagues should make one call over the other should depend on whether or not their regular-season champ will still go if it doesn't win the tournament, though this is really only being done because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

For instance, what if your league was to start its tournament a few days after February 26 and you already knew four of your nine league members wouldn't be able to attend because of COVID protocols. You still hope to have a tournament of sorts, but you also don't think it's fair to possibly crown a champ who has a losing record and won but two games to take your automatic bid. So you designate your regular-season champ on the 26th to assure that your best and most deserving team reaches March Madness.

The kicker is, there's apparently always been an out where the automatic qualifier (AQ) is concerned, and will still be in place this season, regardless of what your conference turns into the selection committee on the 26th.

Let's say your regular-season champ wins the league tourney but comes down with COVID between the time it wins it and the start of the NCAA tourney. Protocol guidelines make participating in March Madness impossible. Your conference simply explains the situation to the Selection Committee, chooses a different school and you'll still have a member school in the 68-team field.

So, you ask, what could be the downside of choosing one over the other?

Two things: First, you choose the tournament champ and the worst team in your league somehow gets hot for three or four days and wins the tournament. Your regular-season champ was projected to be someone capable of pulling an upset or two in the tournament. But a lot of other upsets occur in bigger tourneys so there's no at-large bid for your league, just the sad sight of watching your unexpected tourney champ get crushed by 40 in its opening NCAA game.

Second bad scenario: Concerned about the above possibility, you designate your regular-season champ. Smart move for March Madness but bad move for your league tourney. Knowing they now have no chance to wear a Cinderella slipper, the fans of every other school cancel their hotel reservations and stay home. Hoping for a COVID-altered crowd of 1,500, you get next to zero because the regular-season champs save their dollars for the NCAA tourney. A bad financial situation for your league gets even worse.

Most of this is pretty liquid, regardless of what any league decides next Friday. Because COVID-19 itself is so uncertain, the Selection Committee will make adjustments as needed until the field is announced.

So maybe it's next-to-nothing, this change. More bark than bite. But for a lot of us who've often held our breath that the wrong team would win a one-bid league tourney such as the Ohio Valley or Southern, it's also a concept that's been discussed more than once, as in: Send your best team to the NCAA Tournament and work a deal with the NIT to let your second-best team (or tourney winner if it's not your best team) host an opening-round game against a Power Five opponent.

And that's pretty much the case now if your regular-season champ stubs his toe in the league tourney. But this year, when you're never sure from one week to the next which games will be played and which won't, which teams you designate from one-bid leagues such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Southern would seem to carry more weight than normal.

But with both the men and women Mocs currently fourth in the regular-season SoCon standings, and just two wins in back of first, let us all hope they both stay hot enough and healthy enough to encourage the SoCon to turn UTC's March Maskness to March Madness 25 days from today.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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