Conference tournament season is upon us and it is the best part of the basketball season. Oh, the NCAA tournament is pretty cool, too. It’s like when somebody says so-and-so is a “great coach, better person”. If you wanted to be a jerk you could rephrase that to say “really fantastic person, worse coach”. What I’m saying is that the NCAA tournament is great, but the conference tournaments are better. Here’s why.
1) It’s possible to win. The NCAA tournament is like powerball for most of America’s 351 teams. You can’t win if you don’t play, but the chance of you seeing a UFO on your way to buying a ticket is greater than your chance of winning.
Only one team can win the NCAA tournament and there have only been
ten 11 different winners over the past 20 seasons. That leaves 341 340 teams without much hope. Even in a season with quite a bit of parity at the top, there’s still a decent chance that the champ this season will come from that pool of ten 11 teams – and one of them isn’t even eligible for the tournament.
Conference tournaments aren’t exactly easy to win – there are plenty of teams that have never won one – but they are easier by virtue of there being 32 winners each season. And since a team usually has to win just three or four games for a title, the possibility of winning on is open to so many more teams.
Not everybody has a chance, mind you. (Sorry, Bradley.) But you can count on a team winning a title this week that had somewhere south of a 2% chance going into its tournament.
2) People aren’t involved in the bracketing process. I’m not sure how it came to be but it’s somehow accepted, even preferred, in college athletics that people should determine who gets into the postseason tournament. In professional sports, standings determine one’s postseason fate. And likewise at the high school level, standings generally rule, although there are some states that employ power ratings to round out the postseason field.
But to my knowledge, there isn’t another team sports organization that has a group of people huddled in a conference room over a weekend figuring out who should get a shot to win the organization’s championship. That puts many teams in an awkward spot of not knowing what they have to do to get a bid.
But in conference tournaments, the standings rule. That’s not to say there aren’t some quirks in the process. An arbitrary tiebreaker is forcing Murray State to win two additional games in the OVC tournament. But at least everyone knows the rules ahead of time.
3) It brings people together. Conference tournaments also provide a predetermined meeting place for fans of the conference’s teams. (At least for the tournaments that are played at a predetermined site.) In the NCAA tournament, you don’t know where your team will be playing until just a few days before they play there which complicates making travel plans. At the conference level you have months to make plans to see your team play.
The detractors of the conference tournament say it takes away from the meaning of the regular season. And it’s true that a single-elimination tournament isn’t as good as a round-robin schedule to determine the best team. But the difference is slight. No doubt, a tournament can be fluky. But an 18-game regular season isn’t a perfect way to crown the best team, either. It can be fluky, too. (The 2014 WACh says hello.)
And also, we aren’t running a science experiment here. If you think it’s so important to identify each conference’s best team, surely you must feel similarly about determining the nation’s best team. That’s way more important! But yet nobody is advocating for going to seven-game series in the NCAA tournament because that wouldn’t be fun at all.
More importantly, if you take away conference tournaments, then the America East champ clinches a title on a random Tuesday night. There is no fanfare. There is no opportunity for a player to make a game-winning shot in front of a national audience. Then that champ gets its doors blown off by Humongous U. in the NCAA tournament on a Thursday afternoon on truTV without fanfare.
In the end, the case is really about fun. Do you want to give kids the opportunity to do great things on national TV or not? Sure that can happen in the NCAA tournament, too, but it’s not as likely for teams from single-bid conferences. Yes, occasionally a conference tournament will crown an inferior team. But the tradeoff is easily worth it.
And finally, the regular season isn’t meaningless. As we’ll see in the coming tournament previews, teams with the top seed are generally the ones favored to win these tournaments. And teams in the bottom half of the standings have to overcome huge odds to win a title. One or two of them might pull it off. And that will be exciting. Much more exciting than teams winning titles in random weeknight games that aren’t televised.