Tickets will be punched, bubbles will be popped and 68 teams will get to go dancing. That’s right, everyone: it’s March Madness! Before the main excitement starts, there’s one weekend left that can carry more weight than any other time of the regular season. That’s conference tournament weekend, of course. I’ve always had mixed emotions about the whole concept of conference tournaments, but I’ve finally come to a verdict (kind of). Conference tournaments are stupid and I love them.
Why they’re stupid
One of the main gripes with college basketball is that the regular season has lost much of its excitement and, in many people’s minds, its relevance. The stereotype about college basketball is that you don’t have to pay attention until late February and you will still get the gist of what you need to fill out your bracket. One of the main reasons for this lack of interest in the regular season is because of the conference tournaments. Regular season conference championships are practically worthless in the eyes of most fans and analysts because they don’t guarantee a thing.
The fact that winning the conference tournament, not the regular season championship, is what punches an automatic bid to the big dance makes most of the regular season meaningless. A team, in theory, could be terrible in the regular season, come into the conference tournament hot, win the whole thing and claim a spot in the NCAA tournament.
A prime example is the 2008 SEC tournament. The hapless Georgia Bulldogs came into tournament play with a 13-16 record and went 4-12 in conference play. Georgia went on to win four straight games (two in overtime), won the SEC title and clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. How fair is it that a team with a losing record comes in hot for one weekend and it makes up for four months of failure? Even with the four-game winning streak to claim the SEC title, the Bulldogs still had an 8-12 conference record. Tennessee, the winner of the regular season conference championship, was clearly the best team in the SEC that year, but Georgia got hot at the right time. Tennessee still made the tournament, but the ripple effect of a team like Georgia, which had no business in the NCAA tournament, getting in with an automatic bid hurt teams on the bubble.
Another prime example is the 2012 WAC regular season champion, the Nevada Wolf Pack. Coming into the WAC tournament with a 25-5 record and going 13-1 in conference play, the Wolf Pack came up short in the second round against Louisiana Tech, a team Nevada had beaten twice in the regular season, and fell just shy of earning a trip to the big dance. Despite having a 16-15 record and going 8-10 in conference play, Louisiana Tech came into the WAC tournament hot, won, and paved the way for second-place New Mexico State to win the conference and go to the NCAA tournament. It was clear as day that Nevada was the best team in the WAC that year, but one weekend in Las Vegas and the Wolf Pack got stuck in the National Invitational Tournament.
The point I’m trying to get to is that the conference’s best team cannot be seriously decided by a four-day tournament at the end of the regular season. The sample size for judging each team is far too small. If a team can’t win more than half of its games (looking at you, 2008 Georgia team), then that team shouldn’t be in the big dance. Win more games and play better basketball over the course of the season and that will show which team is actually the best. Conference tournaments reward bad teams by giving them the chance to go to the NCAA tournament when they don’t deserve it.
Why I love them
There is only one reason I love conference tournaments: they’re fun! A basketball tournament is the most fun environment in sports. Teams are playing all day, which means I can watch games on my phone instead of paying attention at work. It’s the perfect appetizer before the main course of March Madness. Everything about the conference tournaments epitomizes what the NCAA tournament is all about.
The 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack that is known for being the ultimate Cinderella story first had to win the ACC tournament to clinch a berth to the NCAA tournament. NC State beat North Carolina with Michael Jordan and Virginia with Ralph Sampson to clinch that berth. In the NCAA tournament, the Wolfpack went on to win the national championship with a game winner against Houston’s legendary Phi Slama Jama team with future NBA Hall of Fame members Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
The 2011 UConn Huskies came into the Big East tournament needing a good performance to clinch an NCAA tournament berth. The Huskies proceeded to win five straight games to win the Big East and rode that wave of momentum all the way to a win in the national championship game. Kemba Walker’s game-winning jumper while breaking Pitt center Gary McGee’s ankles will be one of the best conference tournament moments of all time. There are so many more moments like this that force fans to sacrifice logic for the sake of entertainment.
I feel like I will always have my qualms with conference tournaments, and I have accepted that. I think conferences should cut the amount of teams that get to go to the tournament so more rewarding teams don’t have to waste their time playing 9-22 San Jose State. That being said, I still love conference tournaments because they shoot a nice dose of excitement into college basketball before the NCAA tournament begins. Sit back and enjoy your love-hate relationship with March Madness’ appetizer, because I sure will.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.