- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

HE SAID WHAT?

“I guess it’s a good thing.” — Arizona’s Jordan Hill after learning he was picked for the All-Pac-10 basketball team

The illusion of conference tournaments

Anyone with the iron will or enough caffeinated beverages to withstand Syracuse’s six-overtime win against Connecticut on Thursday night into Friday morning was treated to one of the epic games in college basketball history.

There have been other highlights this week, including several upsets, Mike (no relation to the football player) Singletary’s 29 straight points for Texas Tech and, for Maryland fans, a second chance.

All well and good. But here’s one vote against conference tournaments.

They fill television hours and some of the games are fun, but in the context of regular-season schedules that often exceed 30 games, not all of the so-called conference champions who emerge truly deserve the title.

Playoffs in other sports have had surprise champions who came from nowhere, who put together a postseason run to win it all. That’s fine. Winning the NFC East or the NBA’s Pacific Division is mainly a steppingstone. But in college basketball, a conference championship endures. It means something. It’s special. Which is why the body of work should count the most.

The real conference champs are the ones who prove it all season. Getting hot for three or four days in March to win a title devalues sustained excellence and the previous four months. One reason people prefer college basketball to the NBA is that every game supposedly counts. Great. Then why start all over again?

For the smaller, one-bid conferences, the conference tournament is a minefield. Imagine if American University, after a terrific season, slipped in the Patriot League tournament and missed its deserved NCAA invitation. Silly. And wrong. It might be a stretch, but play along: On a reduced scale, it would be like when Maryland, the No. 2 team in the country, was denied an NCAA berth after its 1974 overtime loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament final, back when conferences got only one bid.

Conference tournaments complicate life for the tournament selection committee, which has enough to worry about. And even the occasional big upsets are compromised. The underdog is fighting for its NCAA tournament life while the favorite has the safety net of knowing that it’s in. That’s a huge motivational gap.

North Carolina’s Ty Lawson, the ACC player of the year, has been sitting out the conference tournament with a sore toe. Would he be playing if it really mattered? Maybe. But why risk anything now? As Lawson himself put it, “The NCAA tournament is the bigger goal.”

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