Single-elimination play will begin tonight and continue for fourteen consecutive days. It continues after that, of course, with the NCAA tournament and the NIT and the CBI and the CIT (is the Vegas 16 happening again?) and those are all great. But they’re not as much fun as the next two weeks.
Conference tournaments are as pure as college basketball gets. There are no committees to select and seed the fields. Lunardi isn’t butting into your games to tell you why UNC-Asheville should get the one-seed in the Big South. The Bulldogs lost the tiebreaker to Winthrop so they’re not getting it. End of discussion. And teams don’t get to discount certain outcomes because they had a player injured or their coach was out or somebody on the committee befriended the coach’s dad at the Jefferson County 4-H Fair back in grade school.
You get what you get based on your record and occasionally some arbitrary tiebreakers. (Sadly, the RPI gets invoked in this process on rare occasions.) And then you play the games. Winners stay, losers go home.1 And the champion gets the ultimate reward of being able to play some more on a bigger stage.
There’s a selection process involved with those other tournaments and we can never know why some teams are invited or seeded where they were. It could be any of these things:
Among the resources available to the committee are an extensive season-long evaluation of teams through watching games, conference monitoring calls and NABC regional advisory rankings; complete box scores and results, head-to-head results, results versus common opponents, imbalanced conference schedules and results, overall and non-conference strength of schedule, the quality of wins and losses, road record, player and coach availability and various computer metrics.
But for these two weeks the competition is structured as it is in every other sport. Each team knows the stakes of each game as the season concludes. The OVC commissioner isn’t going to announce that Austin Peay has played better than Tennessee State over the past two weeks and the Governors deserve the eight-seed over the Tigers despite a worse record. Nor is the MEAC going to have a selection show after its season ends to reveal its tournament bracket.
There will surely be some crazy stuff that happens over the next 14 days. Last season, Holy Cross won four consecutive road games en route to the Patriot League title despite not winning a single conference road game in the regular season. Austin Peay managed to win the OVC tourney despite sneaking into the conference tourney as the eighth and final seed with a 7-9 record.
My favorite part of conference tournaments is how they prove over and over again that winning doesn’t tell you as much about a team’s ability as how its won. The tournament forecasts that are about to appear on these pages are based the ratings on those other pages that are largely based on margin of victory. Conference tournament seeding is based on wins and losses. Last season, the top-seeded team won its conference tournament 11 times while the team given the best chance to win its tournament based on margin-of-victory numbers won its tournament 15 times.
The regular season is filled with storylines about how this team just knows how to win and its better than this other team that lost a few more times. But now’s the chance for the teams who have been told they aren’t clutch or don’t have the character to win on the road to prove the haters wrong. Well, “prove” is not exactly the proper description. Even the most dominant team in a league isn’t going to have more than an 80% chance to win its tournament. And the best teams are still going to need some luck to be victorious. Either in the form of avoiding an opponent having the game of its life or avoiding a night where the shots aren’t falling for themselves.
The randomness is my other favorite part of conference tournaments. Sometimes bad basketball players do good things and sometimes good basketball players do bad things. Those things might happen for a reason, but just as often they don’t.
Bill Carmody in his wildest dreams couldn’t have imagined Holy Cross would win the Patriot League tournament at this time last season. The Crusaders had lost their last five regular-season games and finished next-to-last in the league table. Nor could he have imagined it when they trailed to top-seeded Bucknell by ten midway through the second half or by six midway through the first overtime. This was a weak-minded team that couldn’t win on the road.
While Holy Cross’s run was on the extreme end, redemption stories like this happen every year. Hampton won the MEAC in 2015 after finishing the regular season 8-8 and losing three of its last four. In 2014, Cal Poly won the Big West despite losing 10 of its last 13. And most famously, UConn dropped seven of their last 11 regular-season games in 2011 and then ripped off five consecutive wins in its conference tournament before winning six consecutive games in its next tournament.
All of these teams were viewed as pathetic little ninnies by anyone paying attention. They couldn’t win on the road. They couldn’t win close games. Blah blah blah. Except they weren’t pathetic at all and probably nobody is this time of year. Everyone is just trying to do their best and extend their season. Most of them will succeed at the former and fail at the latter. And not every tournament will have an exciting surprise waiting for us. But there will be cases of teams taking narratives and completely destroying them. Where and when will this happen? Nobody can really know this. That’s what makes conference tournament season the best part of the season.
|^1||unless you’re one of the special teams in the top eight or so conferences|