It's the week before the NCAA Tournament selections are announced, and the world of casual sports fandom is turning its eyes to college basketball, just in time for the worst week of college basketball all year.
It's conference tournament time, folks, and conference tournaments suck.
Night after night this week, TV cameras pan oceans of empty seats in arenas around the country as excited announcers bubble, "This is what college basketball excitement is all about!"
Yeah, baby. There's nothing quite like the excitement of watching that Hartford-Stony Brook tilt in front of literally dozens of fans who have made the trek to Boston for the America East tourney. Or, OK, the Ohio State (14-13 record) vs. Iowa (15-12) game that will open the Big Ten tournament Thursday in Chicago.
Unfair, you say. The later rounds are exciting. Think of that Iowa-Indiana Big Ten tourney semifinal last year. And what about the mighty Big 12 this year? With Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado and Missouri, it's inevitable that whoever gets to the final game, it's going to be a thriller.
Except it's not inevitable, because those teams won't really be playing for anything. Let's assume the Big 12 final will be Kansas vs. Texas or Oklahoma. All three teams have been assured of going to the Tournament with a high seeding for some time, barring a regular-season collapse, which didn't happen. Both teams will try to win that final game, of course, but they won't be killing themselves over it because losing won't hurt them. Last year Kansas got absolutely roasted by Oklahoma in the Big 12 final, and the Jayhawks were still a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament -- and the Sooners, who also should have been, weren't.
The real goal will be to make it through that final game without anybody getting hurt.
Whenever I write something like that, I get e-mails from people saying, "You've obviously never competed in sports. It doesn't matter what the stakes are, your pride as an athlete makes you try your damnedest, always."
It's a sentiment as admirable as it is untrue. You can't try your damnedest always. You have to save some for when the stakes are really high, and with the NCAA Tournament, real elimination games, less than a week away, it's a pretty easy calculation, even if it's a subconscious one, not to push the pedal to the floor during the conference tournament.
It's human nature to fight hardest when your life is on the line. Playing for pride, or to preserve your NCAA seeding, doesn't create the same kind of intensity that the prospect of elimination does. That's why NCAA Tournament games are almost uniformly more exciting than regular-season games. The more a loss hurts, the greater the intensity will be. Last year's Big Ten tournament semifinal loser, Indiana, still got a No. 5 NCAA seed despite that loss and a record of only 20-11. The Hoosiers went to the championship game. Losing to Iowa in the conference tournament didn't even nick them.
The only team that can be hurt by losing a major conference final is a Cinderella team, one that can only make the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tourney. And really, who cares if some 13-15 club gets the chance to get blown away in the first round of March Madness?
Tournament games are do-or-die in the 15 or so smaller conferences, such as the America East or the Mid-Con, that only send one team to the NCAA Tournament, and that team is by rule the conference tournament winner. The problem with those tournaments is that if there's an upset, a team that sustained success over the regular season, won the league, has to stay home in favor of a lesser team that had one or two good games at the right time.
That makes for a nice TV moment -- the underdogs going bananas at center court after their victory. I suspect that that moment, the highlight-reel shot of players hugging while jumping up and down, is the entire reason for the conference tournaments' existence. That and the cash that's raked in by the conferences that sell all-sessions tickets to fans who will only go to the one or two games their team plays, thus creating those oceans of empty seats.
It's a cheap, empty, made-for-TV thrill and a waste of time. This week could be better spent extending the regular season -- why do Big Ten teams, with 10 opponents each, and Big 12 teams, with 11 opponents, only play 16 conference games, instead of 20 and 22 respectively? Or better yet, the week could be spent expanding the NCAA Tournament to include every single Division I team, as I (among others) have proposed before.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I contribute to the conference tournament system. Thanks to a generous coupon in the local blat, I attend an early round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis each year as a (barely) paying customer. I go with a few buddies and relatives, some of whom are under 4 feet tall, and it's an enormously fun afternoon, especially when there's a good tickling contest or two in our row, as there was this year.
The basketball's pretty second-rate, though.