March 4, 2009 12:40 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
NASHVILLE -- They're the greatest two weeks in Hoops Nation, these. Conference teams are racked up in brackets according to regular-season performance, we determine a championship for each league on the court, and the ultimate winner gets to go all the way to March Madness, the kind on CBS. League tourneys not only determine who gets to hang a banner, storm the floor and grab that golden ticket, they represent the same exact elimination-style test that awaits at the Biggest Dance of all. And as I say every year, if you don't win your conference tournament, you don't deserve to go to the NCAA's.
If you had a negative reaction to that last part, I want you to stop and examine that emotion. For one thing, you are probably a Siena, Creighton, Saint Mary's or Utah State fan. Or you're a underdogist who feels that mid-majors deserve a "fair shake" or something noble like that. What you're doing is thinking about losing when you should be focused on winning, completing the very important task at hand. You're looking desperately for a contingency plan, another chance before it's even needed, a second life that you can stick in your back pocket in case your team loses and can't finish the job.
Conference tourneys, obviously, used to mean a lot more than they do now, and a loss here doesn't carry the lessons that a loss should carry. There was a time back before time, when the NCAA held a Tournament of Champions -- before they decided to hold an event with more at-large bids for losers of their most recent games than league winners, which all won their championships. Unwittingly, the bumbling, greedy, bloated powers-that-be tapped into some very powerful schemes and storylines when they grew the bracket to 64, and then 65. One is David vs. Goliath. Another has to do with returning from the supposed dead, which is a potent trope in a country where the primary religion is centered around a resurrection... and just so happens to celebrate its highest holiday right around this time of year. But that's nothing more than a convenient coincidence, and I'm just sayin'.
An important national journalist, and a good friend in the business, called me yesterday and asked me what I thought of the idea that there could be fewer mid-major at-larges this year. After I uttered cuss words at him, I explained that it didn't matter. The NCAA went off the gold standard three decades ago, and the Division I market is as random and chaotic as that of the dollar. The reason any mid-major tourney runner-up would be allowed into the NCAA Tournament would have less to do with their respective quality than the simple fact that the NCAA provides comfort for those that fall short.
But our beloved level of basketball will present a strong field of contenders once again, no matter what. Here are the facts: there have been at least six sub-Red Line teams in the Round of 32 every season since 2005, and no more than eight (the certified "Year of the Mid-Major" in 2006). Here's a chart of all teams from below the Red Line that won at least one game, along with a list of at-larges that didn't. Underlined teams won the regular season, teams in bold won the conference tourney championship. I chose those indications because you can have both at the same time.
|Yr (A/L R64-L)||R32||S16||E8/F4|
(4: Richmond, Dayton, Southern Illinois, UTEP)
|(1) Saint Joseph's|
Saint Joseph's (E8)
(2: Northern Iowa, Saint Mary's)
|(7) Southern Illinois|
(2: Northern Iowa, Utah State)
|(7) Wichita State|
(8) George Washington
(11) George Mason
(14) Northwestern State
|George Mason (F4)|
(2: Old Dominion, NM State)
|(4) Southern Illinois|
(3: Temple, South Alabama, Saint Mary's)
(12) Western Kentucky
(13) San Diego
As it stands now, your team will get into the NCAA Tournament, or it won't. It might be lucky, or it might be screwed. Your team can avoid all this cosmic randomness by winning the next three or four games. But if the Saints or Bluejays or Gaels lose before Selection Sunday, they'll have a lot to answer for. If your team doesn't make it, there will be a reason why, and it will begin with "Because it lost." Your level of denial may vary, and so may your insistence that conference tourneys are dumb and should be replaced by something else.
But do you see a clear pattern above that proves anything? Should conference tournaments be abolished, should we judge teams on regular-season performance? Switch to the Peruvian system? Or should we also give the Selection Committee the power to decide the best team from each league? Does the example of George Mason 2006, which didn't win any championship of any kind, prove anything? Seventeen of the sub-Red Line teams that won at least one NCAA game over the past five years won their conference tournaments. Thirteen did not. (But 14 of the 16 double-digit seeds that won R64 games did. The 14 advancing single-digit seeds were Selection Committee no-brainers that won scads of nonconference games.)
There is no court-of-law evidence for any side of any debate, because the NCAA Selection Committee and the conferences are speaking completely different languages. The ten people in that room next week won't be instructed to give any weight whatsoever to conference tournament results, and there is no indication anywhere that a game is a regular season or tourney contest. You're either an autobid winner, or you're at the mercy of the at-large shark pool. From how it was described to us last month at the mock selection, it doesn't matter if you "made the title game." If you caught the draft of a few upsets and beat the No. 7, No. 6 and No. 8 seeds to get there, that's not very impressive out of context and that's exactly what'll show up on the team sheet.
But the real reason I drag his whole big panel out here today is to point out that you don't retrospectively count things in "mid-major at-larges" and never have. The numbers of those from 2004 to 2008 don't really fluctuate all that much: 5, 5, 6, 6, 4. There might be four this year again. There might be three. Really, who the fuck cares. There will be at least 23 of "our teams" in the NCAA Tournament, and that's guaranteed because nobody's taking our autobids away. What matters to most people, including us, is that small schools push forward into the first weekend. And trust us, they will. Have you seen the projected No. 4 through No. 8 lines lately?
U'useless Stat of the Day
As mentioned in Tourney Central today, Lester "Done Ruthless" Hudson made a serious statement with his 42-point performance against Tennessee Tech in the Ohio Valley's 1/8 game last night. That number was reached in sub-Red Line eliminators last year, too: Cavel Witter of Creighton showed Bradley life, the universe and everything in the 2008 Missouri Valley tourney.
So D.R.'s output tied for the second most in a one-bid conference tourney since 2005, when Joe Knight of Lehigh hung 45 on Colgate in the Patriot League quarterfinals. He sank 10 3-pointers in a 77-60 win, but failed to lead the Mountain Hawks to the title game, as they fell to eventual runner-up Holy Cross two days later. Bucknell, you might remember, used the important elimination-game experience they gained in the PL tourney to dump Kansas in the first round.
|Hickory Picket Fences||27629|
|The Hopping Cats||21526|
|Under a Blood Red Line||10379|
|Jen Folds Five||6895|