Conference tournaments work for mid-major leagues, but they
encourage top teams to tank
The season's most scintillating major conference race came to a
close last weekend when four Pac-10 teams finished within two
games of regular-season champion Oregon. Instead of spending the
coming days tuning up for the NCAA tournament, however, those
five teams will be in Los Angeles this week for the Pac-10's
first postseason tournament in 12 years. "We've been beating one
another's heads in for 18 games," laments Arizona coach Lute
Olson. "It makes no sense to play three additional games," which
is what will happen to the two teams that make the finals.
Olson's attitude is far from uncommon among coaches, which is why
major conference tournaments have become so lifeless in recent
years, especially when compared to the riveting winner-take-all
affairs staged last week by the mid-major conferences. Postseason
tournaments may fill a league's coffers, but the game is
ill-served when so many elite teams don't seem to put forth a
maximum effort. Says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, "Teams that have
made the [NCAA] tournament...have to be careful not to go nuts
during a conference tournament so they don't wear themselves out
or get injured."
Last year's Big Ten tournament was an especially irrelevant
exercise. Michigan State lost in the quarterfinals, and Illinois
lost in the semifinals, but both teams still ended up receiving
No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. (The Spartans reached the
Final Four, while the Illini lost in the Midwest Regional final.)
Meanwhile, Iowa (7-9 in league play) beat Indiana (10-6) in a
ragged final. The Hoosiers would go on to lose in the first round
of the NCAAs, and the Hawkeyes would fall in the second. "We
benefited by going home after the semis," Illinois coach Bill
Self says. "The conference tournament creates enthusiasm and
makes money, but I think teams at the top can take them or leave
That also was true in last year's Big 12 conference tournament.
Third-seeded Oklahoma beat fourth-seeded Texas 54-45 in an
unentertaining and debilitating final. Both the Sooners and the
Longhorns went on to lose in the first round of the NCAAs, and
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson thinks winning the conference
tournament may have hurt his team. Had the Sooners lost in the
first round of the Big 12 tournament, "it would have been a lot
easier to convince the players they weren't as good as they
thought they were," said Sampson.
Advocates of conference tournaments argue that they can serve as
springboards to NCAA tournament success, but the evidence
suggests the opposite is true. The Big East has placed five teams
in the Final Four in the last 15 years, but only one of
them--Connecticut in 1999--also won the league's tournament. The
Big Ten has had five teams in the Final Four since it started
playing a tournament in 1998, but three of them didn't even make
it to the league's championship game.
Occasionally a team that might not otherwise have made the NCAA
tournament will win its conference tournament and have success in
it. (The most notable example is the 1983 North Carolina State
team, which swept through the ACC tournament on its way to a
national title.) That, however, doesn't make it bearable to watch
so many top teams tank in their conference tournaments. Georgia
coach Jim Harrick, for one, suggests that in place of the current
setup, the NCAA tournament should start a week earlier and
include all 324 Division I teams. "Everybody gets excited about
the NCAA tournament. Let's tee it up and go play," Harrick says.
That plan, though enticing, would make the regular season totally
irrelevant. It would be far better to restore the integrity of
the season for leagues that get multiple bids by ditching the
Murray State Wins Ohio Valley
Racers Start Slow, Finish Fast
Though the major conference tournaments often yield little drama,
the smaller leagues' playoffs, which are usually all-or-nothing
for a single NCAA bid, almost never fail to provide plenty of
excitement. Such was the case in the Ohio Valley Conference final
last Saturday in Louisville as Justin Burdine sank a 10-foot
floater with 9.1 seconds remaining in Murray State's 70-69 defeat
of Tennessee Tech.
The victory was the perfect argument for why conference
tournaments work in leagues that don't get multiple bids. On Jan.
26 the Racers lost by 11 points at Eastern Kentucky for their
eighth defeat in 10 games. Following the game, coach Tevester
Anderson walked into the Murray State locker room and said
simply, "I'll see you all at 5:30 Monday morning." Then he left.
"A lot of us thought he was going to resign," says junior forward
Anderson didn't quit that Monday, but he did put the Racers
through a rigorous practice emphasizing toughness: rebounding,
taking charges and diving for loose balls. Murray State practiced
the same way for the next two mornings--during one session two
starters suffered cuts that required stitches. The Racers won 10
of their next 11 games, including Saturday's clincher for an NCAA
berth. "This is as good a feeling as I've ever had in coaching,"
Anderson, 65, said following Saturday's win.
Murray State (19-12 overall, 12-6 in league play) exuded
toughness in Saturday's final. Tennessee Tech came into the game
as the best shooting team in the league (48.7%), but the Racers
fought through screens and harassed the Golden Eagles into
shooting 38.6% (26.7% from three-point range).
On offense the Racers were led by Burdine, a senior guard and the
Ohio Valley's fourth-leading scorer (20.4 points a game), who had
a game-high 24 points. In late January, Murray State adopted the
phrase "40 minutes of guts" as its mantra (Anderson taped signs
bearing those words all over the locker room), so it was fitting
that the game wasn't decided until Tennessee Tech's Damien
Kinloch missed a shot at the buzzer. Minutes later Burdine stood
courtside with a net hanging around his neck, still in disbelief
that he and his teammates had risen from the ashes. "We proved
that when you play hard and give it everything you have for 40
minutes," Burdine said, "there's just no way you can lose."
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Seth Davis
and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Murray State needed a team effort to knock off Tennessee Tech and clinch an NCAA bid.
Weekly Seed Report
This completes the work of SI's selection committee. The real
tournament selection committee gets to fill out the brackets this
weekend. The big question: Who will be the No. 1 seed in the
West? Two of the top contenders faltered last week as Cincinnati
lost to Louisville and Alabama got hammered by Ole Miss. The
berth now appears to be Oklahoma's to take, barring a nosedive in
the Big 12 Conference tournament. Other developments of note are
the rise of Oregon (up two spots to No. 2 in the Midwest after
sweeping USC and UCLA on the road to win the Pac-10 regular
season) and Illinois, winner of eight straight through Sunday to
replace Ohio State as the Big Ten's lone representative.
1. Duke (26-3)
2. Pittsburgh (25-4)
3. Florida (21-7)
4. Oklahoma State (23-7)
1. Kansas (27-2)
2. Oregon (22-7)
3. Marquette (24-5)
4. Georgia (21-8)
1. Maryland (25-3)
2. Alabama (24-6)
3. Gonzaga (27-3)
4. Illinois (23-7)
1. Oklahoma (24-4)
2. Cincinnati (27-3)
3. Kentucky (20-8)
4. Arizona (19-9)