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Slim’s Last Chance

March 8, 2012

I used to hate conference tournaments in NCAA Basketball. Especially when automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament became the domain of conference tournament winners instead of the regular season conference champion. I didn’t like the idea that a team who won 3-4 games in a row could be rewarded with the bid over the team that had done the best over a 14-18 game conference schedule.  I didn’t like the proletariat minor conferences “stealing” bread (and NCAA bids) from the bourgeoisie major conferences when their regular season champions – the ones good enough to be invited regardless of their results in the conference tournament – lost in their tournament to teams that would never have been invited were it not for the automatic bids.  I didn’t like that they were a blatant cash grab by the conferences all too eager to take money from programming–starved sports networks.

But, I’ve gotten over it.

I now think they are in some ways more fun than the actual NCAA Tournament, as it’s “do or die” for so many more teams, particularly the semifinals and title games have that “NCAA Tournament” feel.  For years I’ve called them “Slim’s Last Chance”, as in “The Chances of Arizona State Winning the Pac-12 Tournament are Slim and None with Slim Heading Towards The Door.”  In most cases, the entire conference makes the tournament regardless of where they finished during the regular season, with finish reflected in their seeding.  Now almost every team that underachieved, or just failed to achieve, has one last chance at glory and redemption.  Tuesday night for example, a 14-18 Western Kentucky team as the No. 7 seed beat No. 5 seed 18-13 North Texas for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship, and did so with an interim coach who replaced a mid-season firing.  Not only is that heroic, games like these are must-see TV for basketball junkies as well as exciting for casual observers flipping channels between repeats of “NCIS”.

In effect, it’s added an extra week and a half to March Madness, these tournaments serving as de facto preliminary rounds for the NCAA Tournament and weeding out 300+ hopeful invitees into 68 with a golden ticket to The Dance.  It’s also why I’m not in favor of expanding the tournament to 72 teams, or 96 or 128, or whatever Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight last suggested he would do, which was either 256 teams or all of them.  We pretty much now have that as it is, and I love it.

While play in 31 conference tournaments began February 27 with the Big South Conference (and 14 conference tourney winners already have their ticket punched as of today March 8), it began in earnest Tuesday for the College Basketball’s six “Power Conferences” (or what football observers call the “BCS Conferences”), starting with the (Too) Big East Mega Extravaganza, with five rounds in five days. For ease of reference, I will include links to the brackets and results for each of the discussed tournaments below, as well as ESPN’s “Men’s Championship Week” front page.  By no means will this be a comprehensive breakdown of each tournament, just a few things to watch for as you are flipping channels these next four days. Without further ado …

Big East – Held annually in The World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, two rounds of this 16-team, five day marathon of slugfests have already been staged, with the only “seed upset” (a lower seed beating a higher seed) so far is defending Big East and NCAA Champion Connecticut beating West Virginia, a No. 9 seed over a No. 8 that hardly qualifies as an upset.  Otherwise it’s gone to script, with some juicy match-ups in the quarterfinals today (Syracuse-UConn, Marquette-Louisville).  West Virginia’s and Seton Hall’s second round losses  places them both squarely on the NCAA Tournament “bubble”, while the remaining eight teams appear to be safe.  Connecticut has won seven Big East Tournament games in a row dating back to last season, but their task today against No. 1 seed Syracuse (ranked #2 in both major polls) could be too high a mountain to climb for this young team.  I’m picking Syracuse to win it, even though the No. 1 seed has only won it twice in the last nine seasons. Notre Dame might have a good shot, considering they are the only team to have beaten Syracuse all season, and Marquette might be as hard-nosed a squad as there is in the country; I just think Syracuse has too much for the remaining teams, and Coach Jim Boeheim is no stranger to winning this tournament with five titles.

Pacific 12Play began yesterday at the cavernous (read: mostly empty) Staples Center in Los Angeles, and like the (Too) Big East, has mostly stuck to script with only one seed upset yesterday, No, 9 seed Oregon State over No. 8 seed Washington State.  Unlike the (Too) Big East, most observers who predict the NCAA field (a.k.a., “bracketologists” as in the study and prediction of the NCAA tournament brackets) contend that the Pac-12 has no safe teams, or “locks” for the NCAAs, with Washington, California, Oregon, and Arizona needing to pile up wins to merit an at-large bid, while the others have to win the tournament to get invited.  As I believe any remaining team can beat any other remaining team, what we have ourselves is an old-fashioned crapshoot. In which case I‘ll go with the team that has been playing the best basketball of late, and that is No. 3 seed Oregon, winners of 11 of their last 14 and losing those other three by a combined nine points. No. 1 seed (and defending tourney champ) Washington lost their last game at UCLA last Saturday, choking away their opportunity to clinch the regular season title. No. 2 seed Cal has lost their last two games and faces the same Stanford team that just beat them last Sunday, allowing Washington to back in to the regular season title. Arizona, the No. 4 seed, is down to a 6½-man regular rotation, having suspended starting point guard Josiah Turner while backup point guard Jordin Mayes is still dealing with foot injuries that have severely limited his play over the last month. No. 5 seed ­UCLA could be the party crasher here (and since when has anyone accused one of the most storied programs in NCAA history of being a party crasher?); Since Sports Illustrated’s exposé on the Bruins’ struggles over the last three seasons (a good read, if hardly earth-shattering), they have had an “Us-against-the-World“-vibe. Plus, they’re basically at home in LA, and talent hasn’t been their biggest issue this season, chemistry and discipline have.  Should UCLA make the Pac-12 Finals though, they will be playing their fourth game in four days, and as General George S. Patton once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all” – at which point I would expect the discipline and chemistry issues to resurface against a very well-coached Oregon squad.

Big 12 – Wednesday was also the opening round of the Big Twelve (Minus Two) Tournament, with two games between the bottom-four conference finishers yielding little surprise other than continuing the strong run of No. 9 seeds, this time Texas A&M beating No. 8 seed Oklahoma. The Top 5 seeds – in order Kansas, Missouri, Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas State – appear to be NCAA locks, and are just playing for a better seed in the Dance. With so much on the line for the only remaining “bubble” team, Texas could be the darkhorse pick as the No. 6 seed, starting their closing argument for NCAA Tournament consideration with plucky No. 3 seed Iowa State, potentially followed by facing a Missouri squad they barely lost to (67-66 in Austin) at the end of January for a spot in the finals.  However, it’s really easy to predict one more “Border War”  in the Final between two-time defending tourney champion Kansas and Missouri, to be held practically on the border between the states of Kansas and Missouri in Kansas City, MO, in what could be the last game between the two schools for the foreseeable future.  So easy in fact, I will predict exactly that, with Kansas prevailing, sending their heated rivals off into the Southeastern Conference sunset and locking up the fourth NCAA No. 1 seed.

Big 10 – Having held the Super Bowl barely a month ago and still dealing with the shocking departure of their future Hall Of Fame Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning, Indianapolis plays host to the Big Ten (Plus Two) Conference Tournament beginning today, and if you ask me, it’s a bit of a let down for “The Circle City”.  In the wake of those successive postpartum depression cycles, the fact that the Big 10 Final is usually the last game televised before the NCAA Selections are announced is cold solace from what is regularly a boring affair; In its relatively short 14-year history, only four of the 14 title games have ended with single-digit winning margins, and only two of the 14 tournament titles have been won by a team outside the Top 3 seeds (which is aided by the fact that seven of the 14 title game losers were No. 5 seeds or below, so at least they have that going for them, which is nice).  The only real intrigue for this year’s edition is whether or not No. 7 seed Northwestern can end their life-long NCAA Tournament Appearance slump and win their way in for their first bid ever – I don’t think they will win the Big-10 Tournament, but a win or two could go a long way towards their at-large bid prospects, starting with No. 10 seed Minnesota, losers of six of their last seven. No. 11 seed Nebraska also makes their Big-10 Tournament debut, but I don’t expect them to stay for more than one song with No. 6 seed Purdue on deck. In keeping with historical trends, I will pick No. 1 seed Michigan State to avenge their loss to Ohio State (the No. 3 seed and two-time defending Big-10 champion) last Sunday and win their first Big-10 Tournament Title in 12 years.

SEC – Home to this year’s Final Four, starting today New Orleans will also host the Southeastern Conference Tournament, albeit at the home of the New Orleans Hornets (New Orleans Arena) and not the home of the New Orleans Saints (Louisiana Superdome, where this year’s Final Four is held). Although technically older than the venerable ACC Tournament, having started in 1933, no tournaments were held between 1953 and 1978, presumably because they stopped being competitive as Kentucky won 13 of the first 18 Tournaments, and 8 of the last 9 prior to 1953.  Cutting to the chase, Kentucky has won 27 (!) SEC Tournaments, with the next highest program Alabama, with six (but none since 1991). This year Kentucky is the No. 1 seed and the No. 1 ranked team in the country. Kentucky won the SEC regular season title by six games (they only play a 16-game conference schedule). I’m convinced Kentucky is the most talented team in the country, with no less than six future NBA players on their roster.  Not surprisingly, I think Kentucky will win this SEC Tournament, even though some of the “experts” say 29-1 Kentucky would benefit from another loss before the NCAAs (a line of thinking I’ve never bought into, but whatever). Since that’s not much fun, I’ll further predict that No. 3 seed Vanderbilt is the tackling dummy for Kentucky in the final.  No. 6 seed Mississippi State, No. 5 seed Alabama and oddly enough No. 2 seed Tennessee have work to do to secure their bids according to most bracketologists, but winning one game should secure bids for each of them.

ACC – The oldest continuously-held tournament of the power conferences (since 1954), the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament is distinctive in that its Tournament Champion is recognized as its “Conference Champion” (along with winning the automatic NCAA bid since 1961), where as the other five conferences above distinguish “Regular Season Champions” from “Tournament Champions” (as I think they should, but far be it from me to suggest the ACC change that). This year’s edition begins today in Atlanta, which is only the fifth time since 1990 that it’s been held outside the state of North Carolina (but far be it from me to suggest the ACC change that).  Every year it seems the world expects Duke and North Carolina to meet in the Final, but last year’s Duke win over North Carolina was only their second meeting in the Finals since 2000. What usually does happen is that either Duke or North Carolina makes the Final (which has happened 14 of the last 15 years) and plays a lower seed, as last year was the only time in the last 10 years that the top two seeds played each other for the ACC Title. That refrain continues as North Carolina (No. 1) and Duke (No. 2) are the top two seeds again, and at first glance, going with the “chalk” (favorites) appears to be the smart money. However, the state of Florida is poised to throw a monkey wrench into those plans. No. 6 seed Miami (Fla) is playing for their NCAA lives, starting today with No. 11 seed Georgia Tech (ostensibly the host team, but they are terrible this year). The Hurricanes own impressive wins over both Duke and No. 3 seed Florida State in the regular season, and should they win today, they’ll face Florida State tomorrow.  Florida State meanwhile is the only team this year to have beaten both Duke and North Carolina, the latter by 33 points in January. Duke looms on that side of the bracket, but their third-leading scorer Ryan Kelly will miss the ACC Tournament with a sprained foot, already depleting a thin rotation.  While I think North Carolina makes the Final, the survivor of the pending Battle of Florida – I’ll go with Florida State in a squeaker – will beat Duke and will win their first ACC Title on Sunday.

I just realized I’ve picked four No. 1 seeds to win in the power conference tournaments, and there’s no way that actually happens, but C’est La Vie, I’m sticking to my guns. There are several other interesting tournaments to follow if inclined, foremost among them the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas starting today, where the top four seeds are NCAA locks and should win their first game, and after that it’s anyone’s guess in a tournament with a history of barnburners.  Yesterday’s First Round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament went to plan with all top eight seeds remaining, but like the Pac-12 it’s a crapshoot from there as any of the top six seeds could win the tournament in my estimation, and everyone but No. 1 seed Temple and No. 2 seed Saint Louis needs to win it all. Saturday is really the crescendo of Championship Week, beginning 9:00AM MST with the America East Final between No. 1 seed Stony Brook and No. 2 seed Vermont, switching back and forth with the Conference USA Final starting at 9:30AM MST, and continuing through the day with the ACC, SEC, and Big 10 semifinals, then the Pac-12 and Big 12 Finals and catching a bit of the MAC Final leading up to the grand finale of the Big East.  As someone who admits to West Coast Bias, I also like to catch the Big West and WAC Tournament Finals, especially since they are usually broadcast late in the evening (as they are this year, 8:00 PM MST and 10:00PM MST respectively on Saturday night, ESPN2).

There’s a couple Finals I’m forgetting, but the Championship Week link above will spell it all out. I’m sure by then I’ll be bleary-eyed from the frenzy of Saturday’s 15-plus hours of tournament action, but I’ll be watch through cracked eyelids if I must to see if any “Slim” gets their last chance.

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From → Basketball, Sports

One Comment
  1. So much for UCLA being a party crasher …

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