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The season's most scintillating major conference race came to a close last weekend when four Pac-10 teams finished within two games of regular-season champion Oregon. Instead of spending the coming days tuning up for the NCAA tournament, however, those five teams will be in Los Angeles this week for the Pac-10's first postseason tournament in 12 years. "We've been beating one another's heads in for 18 games," laments Arizona coach Lute Olson. "It makes no sense to play three additional games," which is what will happen to the two teams that make the finals.
Olson's attitude is far from uncommon among coaches, which is why major conference tournaments have become so lifeless in recent years, especially when compared to the riveting winner-take-all affairs staged last week by the mid-major conferences. Postseason tournaments may fill a league's coffers, but the game is ill-served when so many elite teams don't seem to put forth a maximum effort. Says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, "Teams that have made the [ NCAA] tournament...have to be careful not to go nuts during a conference tournament so they don't wear themselves out or get injured."
Last year's Big Ten tournament was an especially irrelevant exercise. Michigan State lost in the quarterfinals, and Illinois lost in the semifinals, but both teams still ended up receiving No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. (The Spartans reached the Final Four, while the Illini lost in the Midwest Regional final.) Meanwhile, Iowa (7-9 in league play) beat Indiana (10-6) in a ragged final. The Hoosiers would go on to lose in the first round of the NCAAs, and the Hawkeyes would fall in the second. "We benefited by going home after the semis," Illinois coach Bill Self says. "The conference tournament creates enthusiasm and makes money, but I think teams at the top can take them or leave them."
That also was true in last year's Big 12 conference tournament. Third-seeded Oklahoma beat fourth-seeded Texas 54-45 in an unentertaining and debilitating final. Both the Sooners and the Longhorns went on to lose in the first round of the NCAAs, and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson thinks winning the conference tournament may have hurt his team. Had the Sooners lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, "it would have been a lot easier to convince the players they weren't as good as they thought they were," said Sampson.
Advocates of conference tournaments argue that they can serve as springboards to NCAA tournament success, but the evidence suggests the opposite is true. The Big East has placed five teams in the Final Four in the last 15 years, but only one of them—Connecticut in 1999—also won the league's tournament The Big Ten has had five teams in the Final Four since it started playing a tournament in 1998, but three of them didn't even make it to the league's championship game.
Occasionally a team that might not otherwise have made the NCAA tournament will win its conference tournament and have success in it. (The most notable example is the 1983 North Carolina State team, which swept through the ACC tournament on its way to a national title.) That, however, doesn't make it bearable to watch so many top teams tank in their conference tournaments. Georgia coach Jim Harrick, for one, suggests that in place of the current setup, the NCAA tournament should start a week earlier and include all 324 Division I teams. "Everybody gets excited about the NCAA tournament. Let's tee it up and go play," Harrick says.
That plan, though enticing, would make the regular season totally irrelevant. It would be far better to restore the integrity of the season for leagues that get multiple bids by ditching the money-grabbing tournaments.
Though the major conference tournaments often yield little drama, the smaller leagues' playoffs, which are usually all-or-nothing for a single NCAA bid, almost never fail to provide plenty of excitement. Such was the case in the Ohio Valley Conference final last Saturday in Louisville as Justin Burdine sank a 10-foot floater with 9.1 seconds remaining in Murray State's 70-69 defeat of Tennessee Tech. The victory was the perfect argument for why conference tournaments work in leagues that don't get multiple bids. On Jan. 26 the Racers lost by 11 points at Eastern Kentucky for their eighth defeat in 10 games. Following the game, coach Tevester Anderson walked into the Murray State locker room and said simply, "I'll see you all at 5:30 Monday morning." Then he left. "A lot of us thought he was going to resign," says junior forward Antione Whelchel.