As the college football season has officially closed, college sports junkies now turn their full attention away from the gridiron and to the hardcourt. The landscape of college basketball this year seems a little different than the past few years, as there appears to be a handful of really good teams but no clear-cut favorite. Duke has seemed to garner the most national attention (what’s new) while Tennessee looks to be a legitimate title contender. A few surprise teams like Buffalo, Houston and Marquette have made some serious noise in the polls so far this year and the usual contenders like Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State look strong so far in conference play. Debating polls and reading early season bracket predictions is a staple of the college basketball season, but are the regular season games themselves even worth watching? If you love watching basketball than you might scoff at this notion, but recent parallels between the NBA and college basketball have some questioning whether the regular season is diluted due to the postseason process. Let’s take a deeper look into the process and decide for ourselves whether the regular season carries as much importance as the fans seem to give it.
College basketball has really put a monopoly on the “any given day” mantra, as it more than any other sport invites the slipper to fit Cinderella at any given time. March Madness provides the truest definition of the most organic and real champion, as all it takes is one bad night for even the most talented of teams to go home empty-handed. Those three weeks in March might be the most entertaining and exciting times in the whole sports calendar, but what about the five months that precede it? Unlike it’s football counterpart, college basketball never receives much grief for it’s championship process, and if anything it serves as a blueprint for what football may end up trending toward. With that being said, college football unquestionably provides us the most meaningful regular season of any sports season, collegiately or professionally. Even one or two slip ups can send a college football program into irrelevance for the rest of the season, whereas basketball allows for many more valleys in peaks throughout a season. The 30+ game season that college programs play will generally leave even the best teams with a few blemishes, but have the end of the year conference tournaments and selection process left us with a diluted regular season product?
Explaining the end of season conference tournaments to someone who has zero knowledge of the sport actually makes you realize how much of a rather unique process it is. Teams play around 18 conference games a year, mostly playing each team in their league once at home and once on the road. At the end of conference play, each conference has their own version of a mini- March Madness, with all the games normally played at one venue during a few day to week long span (some smaller conferences play the early rounds at the arena of the higher seed, but this fairly rare). All Division 1 conferences are given one guaranteed bid, and that bid is reserved for the winner of the conference tournament. So yes, teams that finish first in conference play can lose their conference tournament and miss out on getting in the big tournament, and it happens every year.
As a disclaimer, the above situation does happen every year, but it happens to teams that you probably haven’t heard of. There are 32 Division 1 conferences, and only a dozen or so of those conferences get multiple teams in the big tournament. For those normal “one-bid leagues” their conference regular season is essentially 18 games worth of deciding seeds for their conference tournament to see who gets in. To say that their regular season is essentially useless may not be fair, but it generally doesn’t mean a lot because only one team from that conference will likely get into The Dance. On the contrary, that doesn’t have to be the case, as these small universities are still able to play their way into relevance if they so choose. A good example of that situation would be Furman University, who plays in the normal one-bid Southern Conference. Furman hasn’t been the NCAA tournament in over 30 years, but this year they were ranked as high as number 23 in the national polls and took down Villanova early in the season. Furman won their conference last year, but failed to win their conference tournament and that left them on the outside looking in. This year, it appears they may not have to win their conference tournament to get in, and they will make a strong case to get an at-large bid (at-large bids are the 34 bids that remain for teams who do not win their conference tournaments). When Selection Sunday comes around, smaller schools like Furman can get themselves into the conversation for a bid by winning games they should win and scheduling tough non-conference opponents. Ultimately, coaches who believe they have teams who are good enough to be in the NCAA tournament need to prove that in the regular season, and that alone can make their regular season very meaningful and exciting for both the players and fans.
There are those who believe the automatic bid should just go to the winner of the conference in the regular season, and that is certainly a logical justification. However, the use of conference tournaments actually plays into everything college basketball stands for, which is being hot at the right time and playing your best basketball in March. These tournaments give teams who may have caught some bad breaks and suffered a few close losses one more week to prove that they belong in the tournament. The epitome of why these tournaments are so important to the organic nature of college basketball’s championship process is the 1983 team of the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Under legendary coach Jim Valvano, NC State won the 1983 championship in historic and dramatic fashion, rattling off upset after upset to capture the school’s second NCAA title. The craziest part of their historic run was that they shouldn’t have really been in the NCAA tournament in the first place. They entered the ACC tournament in 1983 with 10 losses, and despite being nationally ranked they were considered to have an outside shot at making the Big Dance because the tournament only had 52 spots at the time (compared to the 68-team field now). Some of their 10 losses were rather lopsided, and even with a good showing in the ACC tournament it was likely they would end up still on the bubble. To guarantee themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament they needed to win the ACC tournament, where they would face two teams ranked in the top 5 nationally. They did just that, taking down number 2 ranked Virginia and in-state rival and 5th ranked North Carolina. They entered the NCAA tournament as a six seed, and after going to double-overtime against Pepperdine in the first round game, they strung together five more wins and went on to win the national championship by beating a star-studded Houston team on a last-second shot. If not for conference tournaments, it is likely that they wouldn’t have even been given the chance to play for a title. It could be argued that the Wolfpack were not the best team in the country that year, but they certainly were the hottest team and they used the ACC tournament as a means of salvaging their season. Giving teams those few extra games at the end of the year to prove their worth provides fans and players hope throughout even the toughest of seasons, and the Wolfpack perfectly display the necessity of the unique process.
For a more recent example, the 2012-2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles gave a perfect blueprint for making a tiny, small conference program relevant in the world of college basketball. Given that they play in the small-time Atlantic Sun Conference, the Eagles loaded up their non-conference schedule to give them exposure and competition among some of college basketball’s big time programs. With games against VCU, Miami, Duke, St. John’s and Iowa State, the Eagles gave themselves a chance for exposure despite playing in a conference most people haven’t heard of. Despite only winning one of those games (at home against Miami) they were able to test the waters some stiff competition and even appear once on national television (at Duke). Finishing behind Mercer in the regular season Atlantic Sun standings, they entered the conference tournament as the number 2 seed, needing to win the tournament to get themselves into March Madness. They did, earning their first trip to the NCAA tournament in program history and securing a matchup against second-seeded Georgetown in the tournament. During that game, they made their program a household name with high flying dunks and alley-oops against a puzzled Georgetown team that had no idea what was in store for them. They went on to win the game by double digits, and then went on to the Sweet Sixteen after disposing of seventh-seeded San Diego State. Despite falling to Florida in the Sweet Sixteen game, FGCU made themselves relevant for years to come. By playing a tough preseason schedule, the Eagles were not phased in the spotlight of March Madness and used their experience to give themselves a great chance to win games they should never have won. Furthermore, their play in conference allowed them a great chance in the Atlantic Sun tournament, which they would use to gain entry into March Madness.
With all things considered, the college basketball regular season is a marathon not a sprint, and programs can use the 30+ games per year to prepare for March, when things really start to count. The more notable conferences can use their conference games to help build a better resume for the selection committee, and smaller conferences can hope that winning 15 or more conference games can get them at least a look for an at-large bid. March Madness and college basketball as a whole might not be totally perfect, but somehow they are able to give 351 Division 1 programs a fair shot to win a national championship, and that alone is pretty special.