It’s conference tournament time in college basketball.
Excuse the yawn.
This smorgasbord of unnecessary games has become another blight on a sport that already has enough problems, denying worthy teams their well-earned shot at the NCAA Tournament while taking an enormous physical toll on the players. And judging from all the empty seats, many fans couldn’t care less about this exercise in repetition.
John Calipari summed it up best.
“We already have a league champ,” the Kentucky coach told reporters before the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “What are we doing this for?”
For the money, of course.
Much like the plethora of meaningless college football bowls, these tournaments exist largely to provide a glut of television programming and churn out even more revenue for the schools. The bigger conferences can really rake in the cash over a four- or five-day period, and there’s the added benefit of perhaps landing an extra NCAA bid should a lower-seeded team pull off an upset to grab the automatic spot.
Financially speaking, it makes perfect sense.
That doesn’t make it right.
Just ask Middle Tennessee, which claimed the Conference USA regular-season title with a dazzling 16-2 mark, only to get knocked off in the league tournament by lowly Southern Miss .
So, the team that proved itself to be the best in the league over 18 games — that finished a whopping nine games ahead of Southern Miss — will have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday because of one bad night. Someone else will claim Conference USA’s automatic bid, which may very well bump the Blue Raiders out of the 68-team field.
“We’ll just have to see where we stand on Sunday,” said coach Kermit Davis, who seemed resigned to the NIT. “I’m not going to try to toot our own horn.”
At least Middle Tennessee can cling to the hope of sneaking into the NCAA thanks to an impressive RPI. Not so for regular-season champions such as Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), UNC Asheville (Big South), Northern Kentucky (Horizon) and Wagner (Northeast).
All come from leagues that won’t get more than one team in the NCAA field.
All were beaten in their conference tournaments.
“I feel bad for our group of seniors,” UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt said after his team was upset last week in the Big South semifinals . “Obviously, the goal at the beginning of the season each year is to try to win the regular season, which they were able to do, and also the tournament,” which they had to do to make the NCAAs.
Now, it’s on to the NIT for the Bulldogs.
“Our season’s not over,” McDevitt said, “but that’s hard … when you had other goals.”
Let’s also consider the health of the players, since it’s clear the powers-that-be aren’t giving it a second thought. In this era of overgrown leagues, the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and Big Ten tournaments have all mushroomed into five-day affairs, which means a low-seeded team that makes an unexpected run to the title game would have to play five games within 120 hours.
UConn pulled off that remarkable — but, in hindsight, foolish — feat while still in the Big East in 2011. Michigan had to play four straight days on the way to its triumph in the Big Ten Tournament.
For some reason, few people seem to question why it’s OK to put college kids through such a punishing grind when no team plays on back-to-back days in the regular season once conference play begins (or during the NCAA Tournament, for that matter). Heck, the NBA has taken steps to cut back on the number of back-to-back games. Three games in a row is out of the question.
Maybe if these tournaments were hugely popular with the fans, it might easier to justify their continued existence. But the 18,000-seat Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, wasn’t even half-filled for the opening night of the American Athletic Conference Tournament. The Capitol One Arena in Washington was more than two-thirds empty for the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Barely 2,000 fans turned out in the 20,000-seat Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the Mid-American quarterfinals — which was still roughly double the size of the crowd (or, more accurately, gathering) for the Big Sky tourney in Reno, Nevada, that same night.
Further compounding the lack of atmosphere, leagues have gotten the bright idea of branching out to nontraditional locales, all with the notion of expanding their “footprint” (translation: make even more money).
When bitter rivals Alabama and Auburn faced off Friday in the SEC quarterfinals — in St. Louis, of all places — the arena could’ve passed for a library. North Carolina and Duke are used to feuding on Tobacco Road, but the ACC moved its tournament to Brooklyn this year in an effort to crack the lucrative New York City market. Michigan beat Purdue for the Big Ten title at Madison Square Garden , where more than 4,000 seats went unsold for the championship game.
Here’s a better idea:
Let’s dump all these silly conference tournaments, award automatic bids to the real champions and get on with the tournament that really matters a week earlier. The NCAAs should be expanded to at least 96 teams — still a relative smidgen out of more than 350 Division I schools.
We’ll give Calipari the last word.
“I can’t stand conference tournaments,” he said. “The next one is the real one.”