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Ted Batturs is why I've changed my mind about postseason conference basketball tournaments. He and his wife, Sue, live in Fleetwood, Pa., yet they have become crazy SEC fans. Not fans of just one team in the league, but of all 12 of them. "I don't know why, but I love it," Batturs told the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., upon arriving there last week for the SEC tournament. A 54-year-old banker, Batturs spends his vacations attending the tournament, wherever it's held. And to every session he brings the black bag in which he carries his stat book, T-shirts for every SEC team (he's an equal-opportunity fan) and a basketball, just in case he happens upon a hoop that needs his attention.
You may think Batturs is nuts, but I think he's neat. I just wonder how he got his kicks before the SEC resumed its postseason tournament, in 1979. Back then I was a curmudgeon, a traditionalist. I ranted about how conference tournaments were being staged only for the sake of money and TV, about how they rendered the regular season meaningless, about how they penalized the best teams. Blah, blah, blah. I was wrong.
I live in Louisville, a hoops hotbed situated so that I can easily go to home games of the local Cardinals; those of the University of Kentucky, which is only 65 miles to the cast; and those at Indiana University, 110 miles to the northwest. Last week Louisville played host to the Metro Conference tournament, and Kentucky hosted the SEC tournament. But Indiana, which already had sewn up a share of the Big Ten title, was still playing regular-season yawners against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Now don't try to tell me that most Big Ten fans, including those who root for Indiana, wouldn't rather attend a conference tournament than sit through those dreary end-of-the-season games that mean nothing.
Last week, before LSU made the SEC final and got off the dreaded NCAA bubble, Tiger coach Dale Brown was arguing that the NCAA should open up the field to all 298 Division I members. He was wasting his breath (as usual). The conference tournaments already serve as the unofficial first round of the NCAA tournament. They give virtually every team in the nation—except those belonging to the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Ivy League—the chance to play into the NCAA tournament. No matter how bad a record a team may have, the conference tournament gives the team the incentive to keep playing hard through the last game of the regular season, because, well, who knows? Some teams take longer to jell than others. In 1983 Georgia lost six of its last nine regular-season games but caught fire and won the SEC tournament. It then rode that hot streak all the way to the Final Four.
And look at this year's results. Missouri, the seventh seed in the Big Eight, swept through that league's tournament to earn a spot in the NCAAs. East Carolina made the most of its last gasp by winning the Colonial Conference tournament and getting an NCAA bid with a 13-16 record. Evansville, which lost twice to Xavier in the regular season, beat the Musketeers in the Midwestern Conference final to make the NCAA tournament. Same for Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt. In the Metro, Virginia Commonwealth made it to the final game before getting upended by Louisville, and the Rams will thus have to watch the NCAAs on TV. But Virginia Commonwealth coach Sonny Smith still swears by the conference tournaments. "The fans love them," he says. "And they raise money for the leagues, and mostly they give everybody one more chance."
Mainly, though, there's the sheer fun of the conference tournaments. They're like family reunions. They're the only time in the year when everyone gets together to brag and generally make fools of themselves. Take Alabama fans Jerry Bogle and Troy ( Big Red) Ferguson. Last week they showed up at the SEC tournament wearing red slacks, red suspenders and red-and-white neckties. Whenever they gave the "Roll, Tide!" cheer, they held up a box of Tide topped by a roll of toilet paper. When questioned by the Herald-Leader, Bogle said, "We don't hunt. We don't hop bars. We don't smoke. We don't spend $15,000 on a new fishing boat. We just haven't missed a tournament game since, oh, 1979."
If you're still not convinced, let me tell you about the fans from Arkansas. So many of them descended on Lexington that one hotel was accommodating enough to rent a pig and station it in the lobby, right next to a trough full of beer, just to give the Arkansas fans something to yell "Whoooo, pig, sooey!" at whenever the spirit moved them. When the Razorbacks played Kentucky in Saturday's SEC semifinals, it was a toss-up as to which school had the most fans in packed Rupp Arena. "I couldn't believe it," said Wildcat guard Jeff Brassow. "Our fans were louder than usual, and their fans were loud enough that we could hear them every time Arkansas made a run."
After the game, a 92-81 Kentucky victory, Bobby Mashburn, father of Wildcat star Jamal, grabbed Razorback coach Nolan Richardson and hugged him. "I just had to tell you how much I admired how hard your team played," Bobby said. "Hey," said Richardson, "didn't we all have some fun out there?"
Is that great or what? I can't believe I opposed these tournaments. The fun they generate, along with the occasional late-blooming national contenders they produce, makes me wonder how we ever got along without them.