- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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You don't know how it happens. I never do. You blink once and it's mid-November and we're guzzling from the firehose that is the Tip-Off Marathon, finally and mercifully -- after a brutal offseason of recruiting news and realignment rumors and coaches getting fired and the NCAA doing its usual self-destructive yeoman's work -- drenched in college hoops. You blink again and here we are: The first Monday of March, conference play winding to a close. It all happens so fast.
But it really has been an immense regular season. Think about it: the scores of top-five upsets, the big-time marquee games, the best Big Ten in decades beating itself up on a nightly basis, a loaded Mountain West, five overtimes in South Bend, TCU dropping Kansas, Roosevelt Jones dropping Gonzaga. College hoops has had a little bit of everything this year, and in the process, it has helped put the lie to the notion, advanced most notably by the New York Times in December, that the sport's regular season "doesn't matter." Even if we weren't chipping away bit by thrilling bit at the marble sculpture that will eventually become the 2013 NCAA tournament field (every game matters, don't be silly), the last four months have been awesome. And that would be enough for me.
Still, for all of the problems with college hoops — and there are problems, entertaining basketball being the most pressing — and for all of the occasional wails that the regular season doesn't actually matter and that everyone's just playing for the tournament, I have to say I hear the most obvious one-stop solution being considered the least often:
We need to kill the conference tournament.
OK, so maybe "kill" is a little harsh. "Sunset" might be the friendlier neologism. In reality, I want to keep the conference tournaments just how they are; there's no reason why a league shouldn't convene its teams at the end of a season for a quick and fun single-elimination contest. Why not, right? Have some fun, make a buck, let a couple of your bubble teams make their desperate last-ditch attempts at sneaking in the tournament — the good old-fashioned conference tournaments you've come to know and love can be preserved in their current incarnation forever.
It's just that we shouldn't be awarding automatic bids to the winners of conference tournaments. It's just profoundly dumb.
Take the Pac-12 last year. In the aforelinked New York Times story, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, in reference to the committee's decision to make Washington the first power-six regular-season conference champion to not receive an NCAA tournament at-large bid, said:
“The decision to exclude Washington was a terrible statement and a signal that the regular season doesn’t matter,” Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said.
In fact, the decision to exclude Washington was a perfectly fair statement and a signal that the Pac-12 was terrible last year, because it was. But Scott is driving at something deeper, something we've discussed here before: The Pac-12 could decide to award its at-large bid to its regular-season champion. Any conference has that power. The question is, why wouldn't they use it? Why wouldn't it be a better thing for everybody over the long term to engage fans from the start of the season to the finish, to hammer home a simple fact: Every single one of these 16 (or 18, or whatever) league games matters. What better way to lend the regular season value?
It's also, you know, fair. It's a larger sample size, not one weekend in late March. It rewards teams over the long haul, not teams who can muster their best for 72 hours.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why mid-major conferences, particularly the smallest leagues, don't already do this: If your league is too small to warrant at-large bids, why would you want to send anyone but your obvious best team to the NCAA tournament? Why, for example, would you create a situation in which 2012 Western Kentucky can go to the tournament instead of 2012 Middle Tennessee?
The counterargument, I suppose, is that this system robs the worst portions of these leagues of their last-ditch late-season conference tournament hopes — maybe we'll get hot and win the conference tournament, everyone has a chance! — and thus disengages fans. I don't buy that for a second. And also, I don't care: If you want to engage fans, put a good team on the floor. Stop hoping you hit a gimmicky lottery. Play better basketball.
And for bubble teams that still need help after the regular season is over? Again, play better basketball; the bubble is soft. But also, OK, if you really need another crack at a top-50 win, the conference tournament is still there for you. Have at it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the league would still compete for the tournament title with the same gusto as the regular season. Coaches that want to win the conference tournament title (the same way they want to win the regular-season title) will still do so, and the coaches who already downplay the tournaments in favor of resting for big NCAA tournament runs can still do that, too. Nothing about the incentives will really change. The tournament will simply have a slightly better batch of at-large squads, and the sport will be able to tell its fans that not only does nonconference play matter in NCAA tournament selection, but the race for your league's automatic bid begins on Jan. 1. Every game matters.
Now, thanks to some sort of Dr. Manhattan-esque ability to snap in and out of time, we are here in the final week of the regular season. We'll talk a lot about the bubble, and about the No. 1 seeds. But outside of the Big Ten (where conference titles remain a huge deal) and the Big 12 (where we remain fascinating with Kansas's streak of success) we'll hardly talk at all about the conference titles in the offing.
Because why would we talk about the culmination of a season's worth of effort, right? Why would that be something we'd want to reward?
I have no idea why this hasn't happened already.