Do We Really Need Conference Tournaments?
One writer thinks Championship Week needs re-structuring, and Jay Bilas agrees.
by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning
It is a relatively quiet Tuesday, as we sit still eight days out from the NCAA Tournament’s first games and another two weeks removed from the Final Four in New Orleans. In the world of college basketball, many teams are finishing up their seasons, packing up their lockers and putting a bow on what was quite possibly a disappointing season. Other teams are foaming at the mouth. At-large bids to March Madness will be given out in five short days. Some already know their fate, others are hoping and praying to hear their name uttered from the mouth of Greg Gumbel. Others still are preparing for an event that is separate from every team’s ultimate goal of a national championship.
These annual gatherings that are in between the regular season and the national tournament are known as “Conference Tournaments,” and I for one am about done with them. For the bottom half of Division I teams, this event is paramount to the actual thought of being named one of the 64…right, 68 teams in the field. The winner of a year-long round-robin both in and out of conference is somewhat thrown to the wayside for a weekend-long battle royale with the last team standing shipped off to Boise, Greensboro or some other random US city that always seems to host tournament sites. To be honest, I am fine with these conferences (you know, the MAACs, SWACs and Big Wests of the world) keeping the event or just going the Ivy League route and ditching the “time/money/health waster” and just giving the regular season champ the automatic bid. That option seems the most fair.
But what I have most grown to dislike are the big school conferences playing meaningless games one day after another within a week of the “big boy party” setting to kick off. The SEC, Big Ten and others even mess with the hallowed CBS Sunday evening Selection Show programming. ESPN’s Jay Bilas echoed my disdain during a Monday conference call.
“I do think the teams that play on Selection Sunday put themselves at a disadvantage,” Bilas responded. “It doesn’t help their seedings at all; it’s all done by then. You have a game that is outside of affecting anything and you have a game closer to the date you’re actually going to play in the NCAA Tournament and that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.”
And for every case of a team using their conference tourney to get hot at the right time and taking that momentum into a long national title run (Connecticut in ‘11 and ‘04, the ‘05 and ‘06 Florida Gators), we have others that got upset early, regrouped and plowed through the national field (North Carolina in ’05 and ‘09). We all know that there have been dozens of Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 tournament champs that have ultimately finished their seasons earlier than they desired.
Don’t get me wrong. There is some really good ball being played right now and the players go all out in these games. I’ll even admit that we have seen some of the best games some seasons go down during “Championship Week.” The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden seems to annually produce compelling on-court competition with equally engrossing storylines. And honestly, I just thoroughly enjoyed watching the culminations of the WCC, MVC, SoCon and CAA, with great games, epic individual performances, last-second winners and overtime thrillers.
Bilas, who is not a fan of the automatic bids from each conference, would rather pick the top 68 teams in Division I ball.
“It shouldn’t be like the Major League Baseball All-Star game, where we have a representative from each team,” Bilas added. “We have a number of teams that frankly, aren’t competitive, every year. The 15- and 16-seeds since 1985 are 4-220. That’s not competitive.”
This is where my opinions diverge a bit from the ESPN analyst. Bilas mentioned that he loved conference tournaments when he was a player, at Duke. Meanwhile, my college-playing days were focused on winning as many games in-conference to earn the Ivy League’s automatic bid. That hope was one of the main reasons I choose to attend Brown University—that I might get a chance to be sent to one of the aforementioned far-off locales for an NCAA Tournament game. Even if, like Bilas suggests, the outcome for a school like ours, was pretty much already set in stone.
Determining the top 68 teams is terribly subjective and a business naturally based in bias. Letting the smaller school conferences determine a representative works, in my estimation. They are usually done with their league tournaments a full 10 days before the Big Dance starts, anyway.
I just wish that the big schools would find a way to rest their legs, weary from a brutal conference slate. Their collegiate football counterparts take an excessive amount of respite between the regular season and their bowl game. While this time is way too long and a hindrance for many schools, I would be fine if Kansas, Kentucky and Carolina took an extra day or three to rest and prepare. That can be accomplished through ending the regular season earlier or just eliminating the “cash-grab” conference tournaments all together. I bet it would make for an even better product on the floor.