The problem with conference tourneys
Published: Monday, March 12, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
This past weekend was conference tournament weekend. ESPN, CBS — all the big networks advertise the heck out of these tournament games, and everyone goes nuts about them. But I would argue that conference tournaments in college hoops are the single worst thing about the sport.
Sure, the regular season can be kind of dull. Teams play sporadically throughout November and December, and once conference play picks up, there's really only two months of basketball to be played.
Don't get me wrong, the conference tourneys are thrilling – as a fan. And especially this year for everyone in Corvallis who got to see the Beavers get a real shot at going dancing for the first time in 24 years.
But why should a team who has no business going to the Big Dance even have that opportunity in the first place?
Compare these two teams from the same conference going to their conference tournament:
Team A: 21-9 overall record, 14-4 conference record.
Team B: 17-13 overall record, 7-11 conference record, 0-2 vs. Team A.
Team A is the Washington Huskies, Team B is OSU. But guess what? In one fell swoop in the Pac-12 tournament, OSU knocks off UW, and like that, Washington's season is over. No hope for a tourney bid because of one upset.
Now, this is no knock on the Beavers, they're just the perfect and most recent example of why there is a glaring flaw in this system.
Washington played a great season; albeit in a very weak Pac-12 this year, but still, they or Cal were the best team by anybody's standards. On the other side, OSU vastly underachieved this year. They were expected to make a run at the Pac-12, and couldn't deliver.
But for one weekend in March, OSU can beat Washington, and the entire rest of the season is erased.
The Huskies were not great in the grand scheme of things. Weak conference, low RPI rating, unspectacular nonconference schedule outside of games with Duke and Marquette (they lost to South Dakota State by 19 by the way…watch out Baylor!).
Let's put conference tournaments in perspective. Imagine for a moment that there's a similar model in the NBA. Teams play their standard 82-game schedule from November to April, but rather than going into the normal playoff structure, we hold a "division tournament."
So in the Southwest division, San Antonio, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Houston play in a single-elimination tournament; winner gets a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. Somehow, some way, at this time in the year, the Hornets, who are 20-plus games out of the final eighth seed in the playoffs, are just clicking. Greivis Vasquez decides to put on his best Kemba Walker impression and they rattle off some big wins to take the crown. They're in.
And then on the other side of things, Portland, who had the eight-seed locked up at the end of the regular season, well, they got upset by the T-Wolves in their tournament. No playoffs for the Trailblazers. Their 82-game grind of a season is washed away because the atrocious New Orleans Hornets won three games.
How is that even close to fair? Teams shouldn't be rewarded for timely hot streaks, no matter how fun they are to watch.
Going back to college hoops, the conference tournament showcase affects the small schools even more than the big ones. Take a look at the Sun Belt. Middle Tennessee went 25-6, 14-2 in-conference, was clearly the best team in the conference. But, guess what, the 15-18 Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky (under .500!) go on a nice run and they get to participate in the play-in game to decide who gets the honor of losing to Kentucky by 40.
It even has a great deal of effect on the seeding in the tournament too. Florida State, in a perfect example, knock off Duke and UNC in the semis and finals of the ACC tournament, and – boom – instantly move from a five to a three-seed. A huge difference. Fives are notoriously upset by the 12-seeds they play, 3's rarely, if ever, lose to a 14-seed. I also can't tell you how many times during Sunday's Big 10 final between Michigan State and Ohio State did I hear, "the winner of this game will be a one seed!" uttered by the announcers or the talking heads of CBS.
The justification for these tournaments plainly is not just at all. It generates excitement, every team gets a shot. But WHY should every team get a shot? Doesn't that threaten the integrity of sport in general? I'm sorry, but this isn't tee-ball. We're not giving out trophies to every 8-year-old just because they showed up. Sports are about competition, about pitting the best against the best when it matters most.
Conference tournament weekend is one of the most fun times to watch as a sports fan. Every team plays so hard, because they all know what's at stake. It's great basketball; it generates interest in the sport, no doubt.
In the end, it's way too much weight and influence on these tournament games that must make some of those teams watching March Madness from their couch look at the television and ask, "why did we even play those 30 games this season if our most recent loss deleted it from everyone's memory?"
But hey, that's sports and life. Not fair, I guess.
Warner Strausbaugh, sports writer