Why I Love Conference Tournaments
As I write this, I am watching one of my new favorite basketball teams, Morehead State Eagles, beat up on Tennessee Tech. I like them because of the great tandem of Kenneth Faried and Maze Stallworth, their great hustle and team play, and- more to the point- I have money riding on them.
That's what this college basketball season has led to. Me, and I'm sure many others (right?), are staying up, on a Friday night, to watch two teams starring players we will never see again, play a do-or-die game in their conference semifinal. The crowd is crazy, the players are running like their life is on the line...and the game isn't even close. So, to recap, the fans are crazy, the players are crazy, and I thought I just saw Kenneth Faried sprout a third arm. So now I'm crazy too. But it does explain his rebounding abilities.
I don't even know where Morehead State is.
But isn't this the real point of March Madness? Does it really matter that most of the games aren't that close or exciting?
For me, the greatness of March Madness starts in the first few weeks of March. Already we've had one great chills moment. Love him or hate him, Greivis Vazquez is the best player in Maryland Terrapins history not named Len Bias. In his final game at home, against the best team in the ACC, Vazquez sealed the win. In the upcoming ACC Tournament, Vazquez will likely become the Terrapins' all-time leading scorer. He could have chosen to break that record at his stadium, with his fans. He decided to win instead. It's too bad that type of thing doesn't happen in the NBA anymore. Kind of ironic that Vazquez will likely be a journeyman for his professional career, isn't it?
And that's just the start of the best three-week stretch in American sports. Next is the conference tournaments. These, more than the NCAA Tournament itself, are where the magic resides. Think about all the great games, or moments, that have happened in the conference tournaments over the past 5 years. Don't forget all the small conferences- you can't leave out Duquesne's energizing run to the Atlantic 10 or North Dakota State winning the Summit Championship in their first year of Division 1 eligibility. And those only happened last year.
But here's what I'm getting at: think of the great conference tournament games of the 1980s. Heck, even think of the great ones of the 1990s. Now think of the great NCAA Tournament games in both those decades. Don't you think of way more from the NCAA Tournament? Disregarding the Final Four, between the NCAA Tournament and conference tournaments, the product is just as good, mostly as dramatic, and usually evenly matched. But in the conference tournaments, the teams have natural rivalries and chips on their shoulders from previous games with their conference foes.
Now, I'm not going to argue that conference tournaments are better than the NCAA Tournament. It's not. But aren't they relatively equal? Shouldn't we remember some legendary games from the conference tournament?
In the 1981 Big East Final, Syracuse beat Villanova in three overtimes. The winning shot came from a Leo Rautins tip-in with three seconds left. Doesn't this sound like one of the greatest games of all time? Why is this not remembered?
And as a UConn fan and a Big East afecionado, I'm scared that the to-describe-it-as-epic-doesn't-do-it-enough-justice Six Overtime Classic in last year's Big East Tournament will suffer from the same fate. Eventually, critics will pick it apart. They will say things such as "The game wasn't very exciting at the end" or "Neither team played great". Maybe I can't disagree with those statements. All I know is that my favorite team played against their most heated rival through six overtimes on a Thursday night in Madison Square Garden. And I was there.
To say that I'm "worried" that this game falls through the annals of basketball history is an understatement. Easily the best game of the past ten years, the game will mean nothing in 2030, for no other reason than it did not occur in the NCAA Tournament.
More than anything, I support upholding the history and great moments of my favorite sport. That's why I want to meet Greivis Vazquez someday and hug him. That's why I sometimes smile just thinking about the Six Overtime Classic. And that's why I stay up on a Friday night watching Morehead State play Tennessee Tech. I'm not just waiting for another one of "Those Games" to happen. I'm fervently hunting for the next installment of college basketball's greatest games. They're buried deep in the passion. I know they are.
And that, I think, is the main reason I don't want these conference tournaments to be forgotten. Somewhere, there are the teams who cared about winning more than anything else. And that can't disappear. We can't let it.
Meanwhile, the Big South Final will be played tomorrow between Coastal Carolina and Winthrop. I'll be watching it.
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