Busting Brackets

Conference Tournaments Punish Regular Season Champions


March 16, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Oregon Ducks celebrates while hoisting the championship trophy after the championship game of the Pac 12 tournament against the UCLA Bruins at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Oregon defeated UCLA 78-69. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Conference tournaments have provided countless hours of entertaining television for college basketball fans, as well as some of the sport’s most memorable moments.

Conference tournaments are also terrible.

Others have taken to task the inherently illogical format for low-to-mid-major conferences, which stake their automatic bids into the NCAA tournament on three days. At no other point in the season, excluding a few of the November tournaments, do teams play three or more games in as many days. Even the Big Dance itself has a day between each segment of the bracket. Yet, most leagues choose to stake their tournament fate on this format.

The grind of a 10-plus-week regular season can be rendered meaningless for these leagues’ regular season champions, as was the case over the weekend for UW-Green Bay, Vermont, Davidson and Florida Gulf Coast. Their consolation prize is likely a road game in the first round of the NIT.

Alas, the low-to-mid-major conferences embrace their tournaments because it’s exposure they wouldn’t receive otherwise. The advertising revenue associated with a game on the ESPN family of networks certainly doesn’t hurt, either. Ultimately, that’s worth more than the faint possibility of a more deserving regular-season champion going on a tournament run.

The stakes are much lower in a power-conference tournament, and the monetary reward for the league is higher. That doesn’t mean power-conference tournaments are any less ridiculous, however. On the contrary—that the power conferences don’t need the tournament to the same extent as the lower-level leagues, these tournaments are especially superfluous.

A power conference regular-season champion is typically not going to be spurned on Selection Sunday as a result of losing its tournament (barring Washington in 2012), thus the stakes are lower—though, that doesn’t mean the stakes are non-existent. Tournament seeding and bracket positioning are on the line, and conference tournaments needlessly put regular-season champions at a disadvantage.

Consider the Pac-12, which reintroduced its tournament in 2002. The conference has held 12 of them in that time, and just three regular-season champions also won the tournament—none since 2008.

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The Pac-12 held out as the last power conference without a tournament during its 10-member days. Crowning a champion was a simple process: every team in the conference faced off twice, home-and-home, over the course of an 18-game regular season.

The Pac-12 tournament was going to become the West Coast’s answer to the Big East tournament. Substitute New York for Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden for Staples Center, and it makes sense.

But that pipe dream never came to fruition. Fox Sports Net held the broadcast rights to every round except the final, which appeared on CBS. To promote it, Fox Sports employed such high-profile musical acts as Mr. Cheeks and Beach Girl Five.

Nothing crystallizes the pageantry of March college basketball quite like Beach Girl Five.

Attendance was often as lackluster as the choice for celebrity spokespersons. The Pac-12 tournament more closely resembled the famed empty arena match between Jerry “The King” Lawler and Terry Funk than it did the Big East tournament.

The conference’s move to Las Vegas last year bolstered attendance. Commissioner Larry Scott deserves kudos for capitalizing on sports fans’ tendency to use any excuse to travel to Las Vegas, but holding the event in a vacation destination doesn’t mean the tournament is now a grand spectacle synonymous with college basketball.

In other words, the Pac-12 tournament is still not the Big East tournament. Hell, even the Big East tournament is no longer the Big East tournament, instead a casualty of football-driven conference realignment.

Compare the buzz as of last week, per Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

And January 2013, per Fox Sports Milwaukee’s Andrew Gruman:

Of course, the Big East tournament field is considerably different in 2014. Longtime league members Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence take to MSG this week, as well as mid-2000s additions DePaul and Marquette. Newcomers Creighton, Xavier and Butler all bring respectable postseason credentials to the conference. This is a good basketball conference, but the Big East magic is gone and unlikely to ever be rekindled.

It’s the Big East but…not. Syracuse and Connecticut went through six overtimes in 2009; neither is a Big East member. Syracuse is a member of the ACC, which features one of the last conference tournaments with any real mystique, and Connecticut is a member of the American, a combination of former Big East and Conference-USA members.

The American’s tournament is an exercise in postseason , as regular-season co-champion and No. 1 seed Cincinnati is “rewarded” with a possible semifinal road game against host Memphis, which finished three games behind the Bearcats and is the tournament’s fifth seed.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Cincinnati currently slated as a 4-seed in the Midwest, which means a regional final less than two hours away in Indianapolis. The Bearcats can improve on that seeding with a run through the American tournament, but losing what is essentially a road game to Memphis threatens to not only drop Cincinnati, but also move it into a less favorable side of the bracket.

If you’re a regular-season champion, the risk inherent in a three-game, three-day conference tournaments frankly isn’t commiserate with the reward. Conference tournaments are sports anomalies, one of the few examples wherein the best during the course of a season are put at a disadvantage—and before the championship stretch, no less.