In a way, it’s funny how sports fans can love something on one level, and despise it on another. In a week and half, we will all gather around their televisions, watch a slow reveal of 68 teams, begin filling out brackets, entering office pools, cheering for teams they’ve never heard of, and watch as their productivity drops to near zero for much of the next month. Every team, regardless of how well they played over the season, will be six (or seven for the First Four) games away from being crowned champions. We love it.
The same cannot be said of the penultimate events of the college basketball season, the conference tournaments. Now, all of a sudden, we’re invalidating the regular season with a selfish money grab. Huh? Why can’t we use a tournament to determine who should play…in another tournament?
In so many ways, conference tournaments don’t detract from the regular season, they enhance it. They give it meaning where there would be none.
This season is an almost too perfect example: The Ohio Valley Conference title was won…on February 14th. Murray State overcame a 10-point second-half deficit to enact their revenge over the Redhawks, securing the outright Ohio Valley Conference title. Without a conference tournament, the season would have all but ended on that day for 11 teams. The past two weeks would have been at best an exercise in “can we make the CIT?” and even that’s limited to a handful of teams.
Instead, we’ve witnessed two weeks of exciting conference races: Jacksonville State trying to make a late surge to qualify for the tournament, the battle for the East Division coming down to the season’s final day, UT Martin trying to secure a top-4 seed after a woeful year a season ago. Those battles would have meant nothing otherwise. Neither would Eastern Illinois winning nine conference games this year, or SIUE’s dominance in Edwardsville, and struggles outside their hometown.
And now, eight teams get at least one more game. Another chance for fans to cheer for their squad. The hope that the season doesn’t have to end — that every team in the OVC Tournament is still eligible to go dancing.
But what about putting the best team into the NCAA Tournament, you cry. Conference tournaments often show us who is the best team right now, not who was the best team in January. They can even out unbalanced scheduling, or adjust for injuries.
But we’re not rewarding the season, you add. How not? Is a double-bye not a reward? Is playing against lower-seeded teams not a reward? The OVC even takes the extra step of making teams qualify for the tournament, so that a 3-13 team can’t get hot and stumble their way into the big dance. You’re getting rewarded for your play, even if it’s not the reward you may want.
Conference tournaments don’t detract from the regular season, they enhance it. They give it meaning where there would be none.
And think of the moments we wouldn’t have if not for the tournament. Belmont’s championship buzzer-beater two seasons ago. Murray State’s late heroics against Tennessee State, the team that ended the streak, the season before. Even Eastern Kentucky charging through the field just last year. We’ve seen great comebacks, witnessed heartbreaking losses, and even had to be evacuated to the stadium’s basement during a tornado warning in the middle of an afternoon game.
College basketball is all about the tournament; The 68-team, three week, one-loss and it’s over tournament that determines a champion. We cheer upsets in March. We love to see the underdog win.
The difference is that, in Nashville, we know the underdogs all too well. And we know the teams they’re beating, because sometimes it’s your team.
Tomorrow starts the most exciting four days of the Ohio Valley Conference season. If you want, you can be that guy or gal that sits back and complains because it’s not perfect, because the arena isn’t the best looking within at two-mile radius, because you don’t like the draw, or because you think there shouldn’t be a tournament at all.
I’ll be in Nashville enjoying it. Every minute of it.
…even if I need sled dogs to get me from the arena to my hotel every night.