DANCING ON GLASS
Its conference tournament week in college basketball, the opening act for the 65-team NCAA tournament free-for-all that starts next Tuesday. From the Pac 10 to the Big East, teams on the proverbial bubble will have a chance to solidify a precious spot in the Big Dance, while
Cinderellas from sea to shining sea will aim for that rarest of glass slippers, a tournament title and with it, an automatic bid, losing record be damned.
The concept of a conference tournament is a sound one: the gathering of a leagues members for what amounts to a (highly profitable) season-ending extravaganza. Back in the days of a 40-team NCAA field, these amounted to playoff games for entry into the national tournament. And for mid-major conferences like the Mid American, the Western Athletic, and the Missouri Valley, the tourneys remain integral in member schools uphill battle for inclusion. But for the big boys -- members of the power conferences -- these family festivals have simply lost their meaning. If anything, a conference tournament represents a perilous gauntlet that presents national title contenders very little to gain . . . and much to lose.
Look at this years University of Memphis Tigers. Twenty-two regular season wins, Conference USAs National Division title, and a still-breathing 11-game winning streak. What does the C-USA tournament offer Coach Cals club to gain? A slight boost in seeding, perhaps? If, however, the Tigers are upset in their opening game (Thursday, against either DePaul or South Florida), well, youll see that seed tumble like a 21st-century tech stock. And with it, any Final Four hopes Tiger Nation may have harbored.
The most deflating aspect of the major conference tournaments is their predictability. Cinderella is but a myth in the land of the ACC, SEC, and Big 12. Kentucky has won\ (count em) 23 out of 41 SEC tournament crowns (the next most is Alabamas six). Schedule makers at Duke might as well include the ACC championship game as part of their season package. Inevitably, you wind up with finalists in these tourneys who have already locked up NCAA tournament berths. The outcome of such a championship game is as meaningless as one of those tropical, pre-Thanksgiving tourneys to which no self-respecting college hoops fan pays attention.
Heres an alternative plan. Take the likes of Duke, Kentucky, and -- this year at least -- Memphis out of the mix. The first step is conducting what well call Phase I of Selection Sunday a week earlier. The NCAA selection committee will examine the power conferences -- Pac 10, Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big East, C-USA, Atlantic 10 -- and finally do what it should have done a generation ago: cap the number of teams eligible from a given league at five. (If your team is no better than sixth in the SEC, what the heck is it doing taking the slot of a mid-major club with 25 wins to its credit?) Four teams (maximum) can be named from each of these seven leagues before their conference tournaments begin. Then -- and heres the key -- a single play-in slot will be left for each league. With the teams already having been selected for the NCAAs exempt from play, you now have a conference tournament field made up of teams knowing they have one shot -- and one only -- at punching a ticket to that hallowed hoops national dance hall. A conference tournament (eureka!)with meaning.
This will never happen, of course. Too much money at stake for the power conferences and the cities that host their tournaments. Be certain of this: the C-USA tournament needs Memphis (and Louisville, Marquette, and Cincinnati) far more than the Tigers, Cardinals, Golden Eagles, and Bearcats need the tournament. And with the stakes so high for real contenders (like this years Tiger club), the tourneys will remain a week-long effort at dodging darts before the hypercritical eyes of the NCAA selection committee. So if you see John Calipari an extra shade of red during his visit to Louisville this week, dont fret. Hes just holding his breath.