King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Conference tournament upsets are fun, but the top teams should either try hard or stay home. Plus: World Baseball Classic ticket sales.


Salon Staff
March 10, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

Every year at this time I grit my teeth and try not to say anything too mean about conference tournaments. A lot of people like them and they're harmless enough. Conference tournaments, I mean, not my teeth.

The only parties aggrieved by conference tourneys are bubble teams, and the hell with bubble teams. Really. Screw 'em. My alma mater included. Don't like being a bubble team? Play better.

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And of course the conference tourneys make money, though, as Dave Curtis of the Orlando Sentinel pointed out Tuesday, how much they net for schools and conferences is exaggerated in the popular imagination.

Still, I don't like them because they're skewed competition. The best teams in the biggest conferences -- I'll stipulate the exception of the ACC -- don't play very hard.

For all that, I have to admit that I missed one of the big upsets Thursday, Temple over No. 6 George Washington in the Atlantic 10 tournament, because I was caught up in the other one, Syracuse knocking off No. 1 UConn in overtime in the Big East tournament.

That was a indeed a thriller, with Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara playing out of his mind and the Orange holding off comebacks every time it looked like UConn would take control. Of course it didn't hurt that the Huskies were actually checking their watches and making cellphone calls on the court.

UConn's a very good team, but you ever try to block a shot while instant messaging on your BlackBerry?

You'll hear some coaches and commentators saying that of course everyone wants to win their conference tournament, even if they're assured of an NCAA Tournament bid and a high seed.

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It's not do-or-die for UConn or Texas or any of the other top teams in the big conferences, but it's a dress rehearsal. You don't want to go into the Tournament on a sour note. You want to build momentum while playing under similar conditions as those in March Madness: Neutral floor, rabid crowd, national TV, lose and go home.

Occasionally, you'll hear a coach -- usually one whose team has won that year's regular-season championship, grumble. Thad Motta, who led Ohio State to the Big Ten title this year, groused about the conference tourney to the-Ozone.com, saying the real value is in winning the long march of the regular season, not the who's-hot-this-weekend scrum of the tournament.

"I think these tournaments are more fan-base driven than they are coach-base driven," he sighed.

That quote alone is almost enough to make me a fan of conference tournaments. They're designed to make fans happy, not coaches? The horror!

But I couldn't help wondering, watching that Temple-G.W. score develop, how that upset wasn't all to the good for the Atlantic 10. With the Colonials bounced, the conference is assured of two teams making the big Tournament, instead of just one if George Washington had won the conference tourney. That's good for the conference.

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George Washington isn't terribly hurt by the loss. Talk all you want about the Big Mo going into next week, but the frequent lackluster performances by teams assured of a bid speak volumes.

The Colonials might drop a seed or two when the brackets are announced, though my unscientific, anecdotal observations over the years tell me that the selection committee doesn't put a lot of stock in conference tournament losses by the top teams in the nation. And anyway the difference between being a 1 seed and a 2, or a 2 and a 3, is pretty negligible.

Meanwhile, rather than having to play games against desperate opponents on three or four consecutive days, early losers like G.W. and UConn get to relax, rest their legs and practice.

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Who's hurt? Nobody knows. Some bubble team somewhere, but we'll never know which one, and it won't be an A10 team anyway.

There just isn't a whole lot of incentive for the top teams to go all out to win. They may not be throwing games, hoping to lose -- and I'm absolutely not suggesting that the wins by Temple and Syracuse Thursday were not on the up and up -- but they're not exactly crestfallen when they lose. Just watch them.

The NBA introduced the draft lottery to guard against just this situation, teams not having sufficient incentive to avoid losing. Where's the NCAA on this?

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I found a pretty good solution in the Daily Kansan, the University of Kansas newspaper. Not surprising, since Kansas will go to the NCAA Tournament no matter how it does in the Big 12 rumble starting Friday night.

Writer Michael Phillips suggests leaving the top four teams out of the Big 12 tourney. "The top four teams in the league would be rewarded for a terrific regular season and allowed a weekend of rest before beginning the NCAA tournament," Phillips writes.

The other eight teams, he adds, would get a better second chance at the big Tournament, only having to beat each other, not the behemoths at the top of the standings. The conference would likely get an extra team in too.

And fans would be pretty much assured that the championship game pitted two teams who had to win to keep playing, the very element, Phillips notes, that gets an entire nation interested in Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Monmouth.

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Of course it'll never happen, as Phillips admits. But I'm glad someone's out there trying to solve this problem.

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World Baseball Classic ticket update [PERMALINK]

With the first round of the World Baseball Classic wrapping up Friday, we have a better idea how ticket sales are going.

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The Classic has been popular enough to fill the small stadiums in Orlando and San Juan with raucous crowds. Phoenix has been more hit and miss, mostly miss. The Tokyo pool was played in front of a lot of empty seats.

Bob DuPuy, the president and COO of Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig's No. 2 man, has been writing a blog on the official WBC Web site.

On this subject, DuPuy's been talking mostly about TV ratings, which have been quite good relative to ESPN2's usual numbers. But after the first day of play in the Tokyo pool last week, he wrote, "We are on pace to draw over 800,000 fans."

Well, the pace must have slowed. Twenty games are in the books and there are 19 to go, including the four Friday that will close out the first round. If every game the rest of the way is a sellout, the Classic will draw about 758,000 fans.

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That probably won't happen, but it's not as far-fetched as it sounds. The Orlando games have been drawing at 92 percent of capacity, so the Dominican Republic-Australia game should do well. Puerto Rico vs. Cuba will easily sell out Hiram Bithorn Stadium, though the earlier Panama-Netherlands game won't.

In Phoenix, the U.S. vs. South Africa game actually has some meaning for the Americans -- they have to win to advance, and while the South Africans are prohibitive underdogs, they have been competitive and this is baseball. The game's in Scottsdale, so a sellout crowd of 10,000 or so is likely.

In the second round, the four teams playing in Puerto Rico will be the hosts, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Six sellouts of the 19,000-seater seem likely. The other pool will be played in Anaheim, with Japan, Korea, Mexico and, assuming a win Friday, the U.S.

We'll see how those games go. A sellout for USA-Mexico wouldn't surprise me, and maybe for USA-Japan. The other games ought to draw at least respectable crowds, although maybe I'm underestimating the dampening effect of the NCAA Tournament.

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I'd say 700,000 -- nothing to sneeze at -- would be a solid showing for the whole event, with 725,000 a realistic possibility.

Meanwhile, the baseball has been pretty good. You have to love that Canada win over the U.S. the other day, and the atmosphere in the ballparks in Florida and Puerto Rico.

The lesson for next time may be to keep the games in smaller, minor league and spring training parks, and close to or in the Caribbean. We'll see how it goes in the big stadiums in Southern California.

Previous column: NFL avoids labor disaster

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