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Hoops conference tournaments are a travesty

Posted: Thursday March 3, 2005 3:21PM; Updated: Sunday March 6, 2005 1:36AM
John Gilchrist
A couple of ACC tournament wins could put Maryland in the Big Dance. But would the Terrapins bid come at the expense of a mid-major school?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

While learned analysts spent the better part of the fall eviscerating the BCS and its misguided defenders, college basketball types sat back and chuckled. No split championships there. No worthy contenders grousing about being "excluded." Come March, it's all decided on the court. Sixty-four to 32 to 16 to eight to four to two to one. No votes. No hacky-sacking computer geeks. No overhyped "national championship game" pitting the two likeliest contenders against each other. None of it.

And college football fans just had to take it. Theirs may be the best sport around, but its way of choosing a champion is so fouled up that the baseball people were even taking some shots -- when they weren't deluding themselves about their steroid problems. College basketball had won the day, thanks to its magical month of March. But there is hope for the pigskin set in this argument. The NCAA hoops' championship method may appear unassailable, but the roundball world isn't without its own sham of a system: the conference tournaments.

They're a joke. That's right, a laugh-out-loud, wet-your-pants, do-a-spit-take joke. Instead of choosing champions the way most sports do, by allowing their members to play a round-robin (or a facsimile in bloated confederations) and crowning the team with the best record, conferences stage three and four-day tournaments that are equal parts game show and made-for-TV carnival. You might get the real champion, provided the top seed survives three days of assaults from zealous underdogs intoxicated by the idea of "getting hot at the right time" and earning a precious NCAA invitation. But if the star guard's girlfriend breaks up with him on the eve of the semifinals, or if a bad clam turns the starting power forward's intestinal track to jelly, two months of hard work go into the hopper.

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This is particularly damaging to the smaller conferences, whose standings are trashed for three days in March, all to get a couple hours of exposure on ESPN2. Who cares if a team rips through the Mid-Continent Conference 16-0, but loses in the tourney final? We get to hear Bill Raftery say, "Onions!" And lost in the delirious celebration of the "champion" is the abject disappointment of the team which finished first during the marathon, only to be supplanted by a three-day sprinter.

What's worse, these small-time tourneys don't net dollar one for the conferences. Have you ever seen highlights of the early rounds from these things? It could be Gold Bullion Giveaway Night, and the arena still wouldn't be one-quarter full. Why do you think they hold the championship games at the home of the highest remaining seed? To make sure the seats will be filled for the TV cameras.

While the dinky leagues gang up on their "regular-season" champs, the big-time confederations treat their tourneys as the ultimate second chances for their mediocre clubs to snag an NCAA spot. And that's just as appalling.

Football Tech may have finished 16-11 overall and 7-9 in conference play, but it can still get into the round of 65 with a couple of tourney wins, usually over equally marginal teams. Yippee! Now the Big East has seven schools in. Meanwhile, in the Mid-American Conference, a 24-4 club gets ready to host an NIT contest because it didn't win the conference tournament.