It's conference tournament week, or Championship Week, as ESPN calls it. Around here it's known as Watch the Regular Season Conference Champ Go in the Tank Week.
Already we've seen top seeds Troy State, Southern Illinois and Austin Peay lose in their conference tourneys, not to mention Gonzaga coming within a few seconds of doing so, and the big kids haven't even started playing yet. On the women's side, where some of the bigger conference tournaments are already in progress or over, Tennessee, Connecticut, Penn State, Western Illinois, George Washington, Siena and South Alabama are all No. 1's who have been beaten.
Every year at this time I find myself moaning about the injustices conference tournaments bring about, mostly in the service of the half-empty arenas that are a hallmark of this week. In the smaller conferences, where only one team is going to get an NCAA Tournament bid, a team can dominate the league in the regular season, then have one bad night in the tournament, or run into one team having a great night, and that's it. Season's over. The underdog goes to the NCAA.
That stinks. It renders the regular season totally meaningless. It seems better to me to reward a team for a good season rather than one good night or even three good ones. More important, though -- and it's more important because it affects me, King Kaufman, and my TV-viewing enjoyment -- it deprives the lower ends of the NCAA Tournament brackets of teams that have proved themselves to be better over the course of the season.
I like underdogs as much as the next guy, but even a powerhouse from a small conference, say East Tennessee State from the Southern, has to play its heart out and still get lucky to beat its first-round opponent, which is going to be a fourth seed at the absolute lowest, and more likely a No. 1 or 2. We're talking somebody like Duke. That underdog conference champ has no chance at all. If the Buccaneers get upset in the conference tournament final by someone like 9-20 Wofford, that just means that for one first-round game, the odds of an upset have gone from very slim to none. (This didn't happen in the Southern Conference, by the way: East Tennessee State won the final over Chattanooga.)
There's a different problem in the bigger conferences, and I have to say it doesn't bother me as much, or even as much as it used to. A big-conference regular season champ is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament no matter how badly it tanks in the conference wingding. That creates two problems. First, it means the conference champ has a tendency to sleepwalk through the tournament, knowing a loss won't hurt its NCAA chances, though it might affect seeding a little bit. That's why you see so many lackluster performances from regular-season titans during Championship Week.
In fact, I've suggested that a smart regular-season champ, secure in its NCAA Tournament bid and its high seeding, ought to, as they say in boxing, look for a soft place to lie down in the first game of the conference tournament. At this point in the season, fatigue and nagging injuries are factors, and I can think of better ways to prepare for the travel, stress and intensity of NCAA Tournament play than to play games on three consecutive nights with pretty much nothing at stake.
And besides, the Tournament selection committee has a record of ignoring conference tournament losses by high seeds, betraying that even the NCAA powers that be realize conference tournaments are meaningless exercises, basketballwise.
The second problem in the bigger conferences is that the wrong team gets punished for an upset loss. A friend put it this way as we watched the final seconds of Southern Illinois' loss to Southwest Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinal Sunday: "Some bubble team just got screwed."
If the Salukis, the only MVC team good enough to get an at-large NCAA bid, had won the conference tournament, they'd have won the automatic bid. Since they're now going to take up one of the at-large slots, the bubble teams are vying for one fewer Tournament invitation. In other words, the team that pays for Southern Illinois tanking isn't Southern Illinois, it's Utah or Georgia or whatever bubble team gets left out on Selection Sunday.
In the major conferences, more teams get at-large bids, so there has to be a bigger upset for this problem to come up -- a real also-ran has to win the automatic bid, not just someone other than the top seed -- but it's still a bubble team that pays.
My solution to this problem has always been that there should be a rule that if you win the regular season title and lose the conference tournament, you should be barred from the NCAA Tournament. A conference shouldn't get an extra team going to the NCAA just because it held a conference tourney at which the top seed lost. That would put something on the line for the regular-season champion of a big conference, and I think you'd see some bounce in their step. It would also keep bubble teams from getting screwed.
But you know what? Screw the bubble teams. And screw them in this order: Major conference also-rans, then smaller conference runners-up. I have no sympathy for the sixth-best Big 12 or seventh-best ACC team not getting a bid. If they wanted off the bubble and into the Tournament, the solution would have been easy: win more games. I admit it's a little rough when, say, Butler wins 25 games in the Horizon League, loses its conference tournament and has to watch the NCAA Tournament on TV, as happened two years ago. But again, that problem is solved by winning the conference tourney.
That simple solution will escape a bunch more top seeds in the next week.
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