Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Small Conferences Provide Big Tournament Excitement

Posted on March 06, 2012 by Dean Hybl

It was pure joy for players and fans in Richmond when VCU punched their NCAA Tournament dance ticket.

There was a time when the weekend of the ACC and Big East men’s basketball tournaments was as anticipated as the opening week of the NCAA Tournament.

When I was a middle and high school student in Virginia during the early 1980s, the only time our teachers would ever bring a television into the classroom was on the Friday afternoon of the ACC Tournament so we could watch that opening game in between science, math or English lessons.

In the Big East you could always count on classic battles between Georgetown, St. Johns, Syracuse and Villanova as each looked to secure bragging rights in a conference that was built for basketball.

That, of course, was the days before the 64 team tournament (now 68) when only the best team or two from each league was assured of making the tournament field and even high quality squads had to make a deep run in the conference tournament to guarantee a spot in the NCAA field.

Since 1985 when the NCAA field expanded from 53 to 64 teams after having as few as 22 teams participating just a decade earlier, the role of the conference tournament in power leagues like the ACC, Big East and SEC in determining which teams make the NCAA field has steadily declined.

Now, instead of the third or fourth seeded teams in these tournaments feeling they needed to make a run to the title game to ensure a spot in the NCAA field, they now enter the tournament knowing an early exit won’t hurt them and the extra rest may actually be helpful for their NCAA run.

Occasionally, like Georgia in the SEC in 2008 or Connecticut in the Big East last year, a team that must win the conference tournament to make the NCAA’s can still emerge and capture the crowd.

However, in most cases, the major league conference tournaments have simply become a money-making opportunity for conferences as only school pride is at stake for the top teams.

What has happened, interestingly enough, is that the playing like your life depends on it excitement that was once associated with the ACC and Big East tournaments is now found more commonly in some of the “lower” conferences in Division I.

The action over the last week in places such as Richmond, Asheville, and Las Vegas included all the emotion and drama that is exciting about college basketball.

The VCU Rams, who made an unexpected run to the Final Four a year ago, withstood late rallies on back-to-back nights to defeat George Mason and Drexel to win the Colonial Athletic Association title in front of a record number of fans for that conference tournament.

Even though both VCU and Drexel entered the conference final with 27 victories on the season, both knew that the only team guaranteed a trip to the NCAA Tournament would be the victor. So, as Drexel clawed back from a 16-point halftime deficit to cut the lead to one in the final minute, fans from both schools held their breadth while hoping they could punch their NCAA ticket.

Maryland and NC State played one of the greatest ACC tournament games of all-time in 1974, but only the winner advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

That Drexel with 27 victories in a conference that has produced two Final Four teams in the last six years is currently on the tournament bubble is a story for another day, but games when both teams know they must win to ensure a place in the NCAA Tournament produces a level of drama that is often missing in the major conference tournaments.

Such was the case in Asheville, North Carolina where Davidson and Western Carolina met for the Southern Conference Championship.

The Western Carolina Catamounts were playing their fourth game in as many days and had needed victories in their first three games just to even their season record at 17-17.

Even though Davidson entered the game with a 24-7 record, they also knew that if they somehow lost to Western Carolina they would have little hope of earning an at-large spot into the NCAA Tournament.

Through 40 minutes, both teams poured out every ounce of energy with hopes of emerging victorious.

After leading by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Catamounts fell behind by 13 points with 2:47 remaining in the game. However, a furious rally by Western Carolina tied the game and sent it to overtime.

The two squads eventually played two overtimes before Davidson emerged with a 93-91 victory and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Event though both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s from the West Coast Conference entered their title game ranked in the top 25 and knowing they will make the NCAA Tournament, both teams knew the importance as non-major conference teams that don’t win their tournaments are typically not given favorable seeds by the NCAA selection committee.

Much like in the CAA and Southern Conference, the Gaels and Bulldogs played an exciting game in which both teams gave it everything they had.

It was a tight game throughout with neither team ever leading by more than seven points and the contest was tied 36-36 at halftime and then again 68-68 at the end of regulation.

St. Mary’s out-scored Gonzaga 10-6 in overtime to pull out the victory and ensure their spot in the NCAA Tournament.

With the Big East projected to get 10 teams in the tournament, the Big Ten seven, the Big 12 six, the SEC five and the ACC four, none of the “big boy” tournaments that will be played this weekend are likely to have the same level of excitement, drama and intensity as the tournaments that have been played so far.

But that is okay, because it gives fans a little break before filling out their brackets for the real big show that starts next week where there is no tomorrow for even the best teams as just one loss will mean the end of the road no matter what conference you come from. That may be one reason some of the non-power schools have had such great success in the NCAA Tournament in recent years because they play every game with an urgency that is foreign to the power conference schools.

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