The real madness began today – in New York. It continues tomorrow in Charlotte, Kansas City and other cities where the largest basketball conferences are hosting their annual tournaments. The games taking place on the Courts of Dreams are an abomination to the game.
After weeks of regular-season contests that separated true contenders from pretenders, teams – the good, the bad and the woeful – will gather at various venues with varied agendas.
The contenders, while certainly trying to win these tournaments, are really trying to survive the weekend and stay healthy. Everyone else is either auditioning for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee or hoping for a miracle – a tournament title that will earn them an automatic invite to March Madness.
My ire is aimed at the former group – mediocre, middle-of-the-pack teams whose most viable credentials are the names across the front of the uniform. In New York, two storied programs with national title hardware in their trophy cases – Villanova and Syracuse – tipped off at Madison Square Garden to open the Big East Tournament. Both teams were 9-9 in the conference and considered their match up a win-or-go-home (or rather, win-or-go-NIT) game, win and perhaps earn an NCAA nod. Villanova won in a romp, 82-63.
Neither team, in truth, has earned a spot in the postseason tournament. With nine losses in their own conference, the Wildcats and Orange are also-rans who simply haven’t earned the right to compete for the national title. Nor have other noted programs across the nation who’ve had less-than-noteworthy seasons.
In college football, they and others like them – i.e. Boston College, NC State and more – would have been eliminated from consideration long ago. In college football, one loss typically boots a team from the title race (the most recent season was a stone-cold aberration), certainly two losses. But in college basketball, too many teams are not judged by their quantifiable results but by such intangibles as RPI, “quality of schedule” and, well, their heritage.
In fact, some of the big conferences possess a sense of entitlement of NCAA tournament berths based on little more, it seems, than their bigness. “We have a legitimate eight, nine teams vying for the NCAA tournament,” says Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
More accurately, about half that number of Big East teams deserves invitations to The Dance. That’s also true for the ACC, Big 12, Pac 10 and other so-called “major” conferences.
But this is the reality: The NCAA Tournament is as much about preserving the status quo as it is about crowning a national title winner. Every tournament berth equals major dollars, money that is shared with other conference schools. Thus the more teams a conference sends to the NCAAs, the more money gets distributed to its members (even those that did not qualify). It’s how the Bigs stay big.
Competitively, I’d rather see more schools from the so-called mid-majors earn berths. They’re just as hardened by competition as schools from the bigs and because players at those schools tend to remain there for four years, their teams are often more seasoned and savvy. As we see every year at this time, talent is often humbled by teamwork and leadership.
The NCAA needs to demonstrate its own wisdom and leadership by not allowing mediocre teams from large conferences, no matter their pedigree, to participate in its showcase event.