When it comes to college basketball, I don’t really have horse during the season; most likely it is because I didn’t go to a school that had a major program – we were a Division II program in an obscure conference (WVIAC – West Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Conference). However, this time of the year is always my favorite during college basketball season: the time of conference tournaments.
I actually prefer conference tourneys to the ‘Big Dance’ otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament. Teams seem to play harder, and the teams that are either ‘on the bubble’ (to borrow the ‘bracketology’ phrase) or have no shot at the NCAAs without winning their conference are that much more motivated to win. No one ever says ‘we are happy to be here’ in the conference tourney the way they do the NCAAs, and rightfully so. I would seriously doubt that Maryland would be ‘just’ thrilled to be playing Duke like they did yesterday in the ACC tournament.
Another reason I prefer the conference tournaments has a lot to do with the ugliness of them. When Gonzaga plays Florida International in the round of 64, there just isn’t any kind of bloodiness to it. Certainly, there are upsets, upstarts, and unknowns making their name (think Stephen Curry last year), but give me the rivalries that emanate from the conferences where everybody has to play everybody else at least once (sometimes twice) during the season. The aching that occurs when Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma or when Syracuse wins in six (SIX!!) overtimes over a top-three team in the country (UConn).
This is borne out around here a bit as well. Ask Maryland fans of the past 15-20 years what their favorite moment was, quite a few will in fact pick winning the ACC Title in 2004 after knocking off the #1, 2, and 3 seeds to do so over winning the National Title in 2002. Why? Because the satisfaction of defeating conference rivals Wake, NC State and Duke can be greater than beating teams with whom one shares almost nothing except a court during the game. In a related example, I was always so much more crushed when the Eagles lost the NFC Title Game than when they lost the Super Bowl, because it is always more difficult and therefore more fulfilling to win one’s league and/or conference.
This is not to say that I completely disavow the NCAA Tournament, far from it. At the same time, the only rounds to which I really pay attention are the first two – this is when the upsets occur and the nobodies make their name. Who will be this year’s Davidson or will a team like George Mason (another local school) make a run that will cause eyebrows to rise. Who will be that ‘bracket-buster’? The fact that the games start during the afternoon and run all the way through the wee hours in the morning make it all the more appealing as well.
Despite all of this, though, my heart has always been in the conference tournaments – there is no better place for a player to drive a stake through the hearts of the fans who despise him, or for the fans of one team to taunt the fans of the other. Unless by sheer luck, this kind of convergence will not be happening in the NCAAs.
And nor should it.