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Wednesday, March 12, 2003
Conference Tourneys: Good or Bad?


Upsets. Last-second shots. Last chances. Bubble teams trying to play into the Big Dance with one last win. But ... are Championship Week and the conference tournaments really good for college basketball? Joe Lunardi and Andy Katz face off.

Lunardi: Get Rid of 'Em
It's a simple question: What is the purpose, in competitive terms, of conference tournaments in major college basketball?

The answer should be obvious: To determine a champion that will best represent the conference in the subsequent national tournament. Simple, right?

23-8 Gonzaga could lose their at-large bid thanks to a loss in their conference tourney.

Not so fast ...

How many times does the best team actually win its conference tournament? How often does a conference end up sending a weaker representative because of the conference tournament? And wouldn't the conferences be better served by altering the way automatic bids are doled out?

This problem is especially acute among conferences at the mid-major level and below. For instance, was the Horizon League served well last year when No. 8 Wisconsin-Green Bay upset No. 1 Butler in a quarterfinal game? What if San Diego's win in Monday's West Coast Conference title tilt -- on its own floor, no less -- costs league champion Gonzaga an at-large bid?

Bottom line: Last year, was Butler or conference tourney winner Illinois-Chicago more likely to succeed in NCAA play? This year, is San Diego or Gonzaga more likely to advance in the Big Dance?

We all know the answers to these questions, which is why conference tournaments are blatantly unfair in strictly competitive terms. Most give equal chances to winning teams as to losing teams. They are essentially "do-overs," with the only potential beneficiaries being those teams which have already failed in some way.

The conferences know this intuitively, of course, which is why more and more are building brackets that make the road to a tourney title much easier for the better teams. The WCC, MAAC and Horizon League this year all moved to a format in which the higher seeds were bracketed to the semifinals.

Which begs an even more obvious question: why not designate the regular-season champion as the NCAA automatic qualifier? Clearly a 14-, 16- or 18-game round-robin schedule is a better way of determining the best team in the league. After all, the American League East doesn't play a 162-game schedule and then have the Yankees and Devil Rays play off to represent the division in the AL playoffs.

Katz: Keep 'Em
Conference tournaments are about television, money and the hope for more bids, nothing more and nothing less.

These tournaments are created for ESPN, ABC and CBS to provide an entertaining final, to show players dancing around that have won a bid and to provide the shots of the disappointed players who have lost.

The Red Raiders need their conference tourney to chalk up some big wins.

If ESPN didn't want to televise these tournaments then there would be no reason for the Big Sky to run the risk of sending Portland State instead of Weber State to the NCAA Tournament. The only reason the Big Ten finally buckled and created a conference tournament was to generate revenue. Big Ten fans travel, the tournament is a draw on television and it gets the league exposure for three or four days in Chicago or Indianapolis.

The same is true out West where the Pac-10 finally created a tournament again to provide exposure and hopefully more money by having it in Los Angeles.

There are clear benefits for some teams that need one more quality win to jump off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. If Oregon beats Arizona State then that gives them two wins against the Sun Devils and should ease any pain for the committee.

Texas Tech doesn't need to win the Big 12 tournament but two wins against two of the elites in the league would certainly do wonders for its case. The muddled Big East could help the cases of a few teams. A win or two for Seton Hall in the tournament would help its resume, as would a win for Boston College. The SEC could end up being an elimination tournament with bubble teams going against each other. Teams that have sub-.500 conference records could get a few more wins to help their cause. Teams trying to get into the NIT can get enough wins to get over .500 to be eligible.

These exciting scenarios make the conference tournaments full of drama, tense play and definitely worthwhile to keep around.

True, the dangers of having a weak team win the conference tournament can jeopardize the integrity of the conference, like Siena winning the MAAC last season with a sub-.500 record or UNC-Asheville doing the same in the Big South this season. But sometimes it works out even better: a league may get two bids to the NCAA Tournament, like the WCC with San Diego's win over Gonzaga, or the Horizon, with UW-Milwaukee's win over Butler for possibly two out of the Horizon.