- Associated Press - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Want the real scouting report for the office bracket on what teams will play in the Final Four?

Keep an eye on the team that cuts down the nets this weekend in Indianapolis. Circle the name of the team that’s partying on the court in Greensboro, N.C. Pay attention to the squad wearing matching hats and T-shirts in Kansas City, Mo.

Go ahead, ride those conference tournament champs deep into the bracket and collect a payday.

Teams are finding out that Final Four and national championship glory starts with winning their conference tournaments. Four of the last five teams to win it all on the first Monday night in April, earned the automatic berth to the NCAA field kept by winning league tourneys in March.

“If we’re going to play,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “let’s try to win the blessed thing.”

In an age where critics think conference tournaments are too bloated, too drawn out, and too hurtful for national championship contenders, the fact is, the tournaments more often catapult a team into a March Madness favorite.

Duke won it all last season after winning the ACC tournament. Kansas in 2008 (Big 12) and Florida in 2006 and 2007 (SEC) all warmed up for their grueling six-game runs by winning three games in three days in early March.

Last season, Duke, Butler (Horizon) and West Virginia (Big East) all reached the Final Four after winning their conference tournaments.

In 2008, Memphis (Conference USA), North Carolina (ACC) and UCLA (Pac-10) joined KU to make it an all tournament-title Final Four. In 2007, Florida had company in the Final Four with conference tourney champs Ohio State (Big 10) and Georgetown (Big East).

Only twice in the last decade _ 2009 and 2003 _ was a Final Four played without a conference tournament champion.

Of course, Williams would never admit losing a conference tournament game would help his team. But if any coach feels a national championship is not equated to being the best in a short conference weekend, it might be Williams.

The aw-shucks coach has led seven teams to the Final Four over a Hall of Fame career built at Kansas and North Carolina and only once has that come after winning the conference tournament championship. That was in 2008 when the Tar Heels won three games in the ACC tournament _ and later were about run off the court in the NCAA national semifinal by the eventual national champion Jayhawks.

“I think that there are some things you can say that that extra couple of days rest might help you,” Williams said. “But the more putts you make, the more you make, the (more) baskets you make, the more you make, the more you win, the more you win.”

It’s not a shock that elite teams pull off the tournament-title double. Most of them, after all, already won a regular season championship. For Villanova coach Jay Wright, winning at Madison Square Garden in New York would have been nice, but he judges a season’s success on how the Wildcats fare in the Big East regular season.

The Wildcats weren’t in contention for either this season, because of a 9-9 conference record. They squandered a 16-point lead Tuesday in the Big East tournament opener and lost to South Florida 70-69.

Villanova lost in the Big East semis in 2009 when it played in the Final Four for the first time since 1985.

“What the tournament does is toughen you up for what’s ahead,” Wright said. “You might not play better teams than you’ll find in the Big East until later in the NCAA tournament.”

That’s the motto of the Big East. No league, after all, is as stocked from top to bottom as this behemoth.

But no Big East team has won a national championship since UConn in 2004 _ the same year the Huskies won the tournament title.

While Big East teams litter the Top 25 during the regular season, it hasn’t placed a team in the title game in seven years. Perhaps a demanding schedule against a top-heavy roster of likely tournament teams leaves contenders worn out by the time the brackets are announced.

Think any underdog could really win five games in New York and follow that with a three-weekend NCAA run?

“There’s the glass is half-full. That in the Big East, you’re used to that competition, nothing is going to bother them,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Other people, more cynical would say, ‘Well they’re tired, they’re broken down, they’re fatigued, they have too many mental wars.’ It’s how you look at things.”

Pitino wouldn’t change a thing about the March schedule.

“I always think competition makes you better,” he said. “The Big East tournament could be as tough as the NCAA tournament.”

Hey, if an NBA team can play three rounds before reaching the finals, a weekend getaway surely can’t hurt a college program.

Conference tournaments aren’t going away _ even if the winner-take-all playoff in the Ivy League suggests there’s another way to create March drama.

If teams are going play them, they may as well win them.

“For us, it’s all about winning and putting banners up,” Duke guard Nolan Smith said. “That’s something that everybody that puts on a Duke jersey wants to do. We don’t just think about the NCAA tournament as players. We think about every chance we get to win is important for us. To see a tournament banner up or regular season or both, like last year, it means something.”


AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard, Will Graves and Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.

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