PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- It's 2010, and the future is now
. We have androids and robots
that do our bidding, we use magic phones, and all the kids are having droid sex on "virtual AOL." Everything either flies, glows, or has a touch screen. But there's one machine from the old-school that has not been outdone by any so-called cybertronic revolution -- the giant decentralized nationwide system, 3.5 million square miles in size, that turns 247 teams into 23 champions in just 13 days.
"Championship Week" was not invented by ESPN. Titlists have been decided by way of brackets since... well, since the first time there were more than two competitors for a title. Teams play each other until there's only the best one left. And it's awesome!
In the big picture of the season, these 13 days represent only the third phase. But for most of us, this is the only time for prime time, and the singular opportunity for what my friend Tony Ingle
calls SNL -- scissors, nets and ladders. Most of the leagues we talk about in this space will only send one champion on to the fourth and final chapter, and there's always the possibility that all
these leagues will send no at-large teams whatsoever. This isn't the [CENSORED - ed.], and the silver medal usually gets you nothing. Unless you're the Atlantic 14 this year (which only sent the Atlantic One as recently as 2002 and 2005).
The NCAA Tournament, on this side of the Red Line, is much more sorrow than joy. Save for the occasional upset, champions of Hoops Nation will be mown down like weeds, and that first weekend is always a blur of heartbreak. All that anticipation and hope that gets crushed at once... it's overwhelming. Of course, that's what enhances the immortalizes the victories, throws them into clear and unforgettable focus.
Most of the dreams that will die during Championship Fortnight were tempered anyway, all those seasons that were over before they even began -- and end for good as No. 7 seeds in dark jerseys. Our titlists are true champions, teams that have beaten their local rivals and hated enemies (in some cases for a third time) and they deserve respect and recognition. They're not just lines on an secretary's office pool bracket, attached to a double-digit number.
So this truly is the best time of year at The Mid-Majority. It's a happy basketball party, with some Big Dancing and a little bit of singing too. Regular season champions have to back up their two-month performances with one-and-done wins. Teams with bad seasons will be validated with an upset victory (like Tennessee Tech last night in the OVC quarterfinals) or two, and it'll be the tourney runs in March that will be remembered more than the January losing streaks. Everything's mattered to this point, but what happens here, on these stages, really matters.
It also matters how those stages are constructed. There's still one league out there that doesn't have a conference tourney, and plenty of purists who think that sending a regular season champion is the superior method. But Cornell, easily the best team the Ivy League will send to the Big Dance in at least 30 years, will be the only team at the NCAA Tournament that hasn't experienced the urgency of an elimination game -- that motivating fear of failure that makes those last-minute free throws, that last time-out huddle, so charged with tension. Maybe the Big Red is so good, it doesn't need all that, and it's able to do something it hasn't done before. (In non-related news, I'm going down to the hospital tomorrow to get a yellow-fever shot, now that I've been seizure-free for a year. While there, I'll be performing my first-ever brain surgery. Wish me luck!)
Some of the tourneys that are playing out this week are at "campus sites," meaning that the higher seeds get to play their games at home. In conferences like the Northeast and Patriot League, folks will tell you that hosting games is a reward for doing well in the regular season -- who wouldn't want home-court advantage? This is, of course, talking-points talk for "we can't afford a single-site event" or "hardly anybody cares about basketball enough to travel for it." Both of those conferences have had single-site tourneys before, and have gone back to multiple campuses in order to save money. (Not counting the last-minute travel costs that lower-seeded teams have to pay, of course.)
But here's what I don't get. In the past few years, a lot of leagues have brought on title sponsors for their events, and conference tourneys are now Brought To You By construction companies and apparel manufacturers. So if a league's taking a check from an auto parts store, and it's not at a single site, what the hell's the excuse? Squeeze more money out of the sponsor, put everyone in one building for three days. As I've maintained all along, having all the teams in one venue is important -- no matter how many fans decide to make the trip and show up.
A single-site league tourney gives a sense of stability -- the Missouri Valley has been in St. Louis for 20 years, and the CAA has been in Richmond since forever. It's also a place for AD's and SID's and coaches and media people to stand around shaking hands and talking -- this is one of the important functions of a league tourney. Even if the stands are empty, and it's so embarrassing for the conference, there's business that gets done at these things. It can also be a prearranged time and place for alumni to reconnect. The MEAC and SWAC take that to the next level, turning their basketball tournaments into family gatherings, with side entertainment, battles of the bands, beauty pageants, concerts and dinners.
There's been some improvements on this front. The Sun Belt, while I question their choice of a former gangster resort town in the middle of an Arkansas forest, is now sending all 13 teams to Hot Springs. The first round will be played on two adjoining courts at the big complex there, instead of across the country at campus sites. Next year, all the OVC teams will meet at Nashville's NHL arena, not just the final four.
If a league can't find or afford a neutral venue, just pick the biggest and/or nicest building in the conference and do it there. If the other schools complain, tell them to improve their facilities. Rotate it, like the Metro Atlantic has (Buffalo, Albany, Bridgeport). The Atlantic Sun, which has been in Nashville for the last few years, is at Mercer in Macon, Ga. in 2010. Likewise, the Badlands Conference, MAC, A-14, Southland, Big West, WAC and SoCon find a way to get everything taken care of in one place.
And while there are better options, it doesn't all have to be done in one building. The America East has one weekend at a single site, then sends the two survivors to the higher seed's building a week later. And there are the Horizon League and the Big South and the Big Sky, which give the regular season champion a chance to host multiple days of the tourney.
Personally, I don't like those setups very much. In particular, the Horizon (a conference that's become a multi-bid threat every year) has a lousy structure. The tourney will never be an alumni destination, so long as the location of the final three rounds isn't revealed until the regular-season champion is named. And why not? It's a tight cluster of city schools, and the event is sponsored by a line of gas stations, so putting this at some place like the Sears Centre in Chicagoland wouldn't bankrupt anybody. Plus, if the HL is serious about three bids in the future, putting the No. 3 seed through a four-game gauntlet, while the top two are protected until the semifinals, has to change.
But in the end, it's neat that all of the leagues of Hoops Nation have different ideas about how to decide their titlists, and that there are no rules that stipulate how it has to be done. We have enough order as it is -- 347 teams playing for a single championship -- and it's the controlled chaos inside this fixed context that makes it fascinating.
And by all means, go out to a conference tourney if there's one near you. Spend a day there if you can, watch as many games as possible. There are bands and cheerleaders and mascots and the intensity of "winner survives, loser dies" basketball. Oh, and bring the kids!