The Unmatched Intensity of Conference Tournaments

At the MAAC Tournament, seniors cry when they lose. That’s because a loss means their season is over. In conferences that send their tournament winner, and no one else, to the Big Dance, the intensity is unmatched.

The conference tournaments in high-level leagues like the ACC and Big Ten are great, but those teams are simply battling for seeding in the NCAA Tournament. For the MAAC and 15-20 conferences like it, the NCAA Tournament typically has room for just one team. That’s what makes the stakes so high.

The tournies can be cruel. Murray State went undefeated in the Ohio Valley in the regular season but lost in the final seconds of their conference championship game, snapping a 25-game win streak. Despite their 27-5 record, they might not be invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tonight, three regular season champions are playing in their league’s championship game. To a degree, it will be unfair if one bad performance prevents them from reaching the Dance. On the other hand, what is more fair than giving every team the opportunity to play its way in?

I know some coaches would prefer if their conference went to the Ivy model, which awards its automatic bid to the regular season champion. That does make it more likely that a league’s best team will be represented in the NCAA Tournament. But taking away conference tournaments would take away from March Madness.

On a media conference call this morning, I heard a writer ask a Big 12 coach if the league tournament felt “irrelevant” this year, given how competitive the regular season was and that seven teams are projected to get a bid. While the coach didn’t go as far as agreeing with that assessment, he didn’t shoot it down. The point is that it’s not a question that would even be entertained in the one-bid leagues.

Irrelevant? No, it’s all that matters. Teams that have played each other already, often twice, and are very familiar with the other’s style, battle it out in a one-and-done setting. The logistics are different across the country as far as location and schedule, but the message is the same: You’ve got to win to get in.

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