Sports department for the student run radio station 90.3 WRST at UW-Oshkosh
It’s conference tournament time! The ultimate pregame before the party that is the NCAA Tournament… And as those of us who remember our college years know that, sometimes, the pre-party can beat the actual party. So what makes “Championship Week” so terrific?
In a phrase (or several): Bubble teams fight. Underdogs thrive. Legends are born. And, most importantly: NOTHING ELSE MATTERS.
Undoubtedly the greatest quality of this mid-March week is that it essentially deletes all the statistics of the previous four or five months. A team that’s below .500 can “peak at the right time”, get on a roll, win its conference tournament, and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This, my friends, is the ultimate romanticism of sports. Nothing. Else. Matters. It’s all or nothing, do or die…any overused cliche of competition that you can think of. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Remember the 2005 Oakland Grizzlies? You should… That little underdog that went 9-18 in regular season play (7-9 in Mid-Continent League Play), and then proceeded to rattle off three straight victories, the last of which was a buzzer-beating win over 2005 regular season Mid-Con Champion Oral Roberts (13-3 in league play), to win the conference tournament That tourney win got the Grizzlies their first EVER NCAA Division 1 Tournament appearance and, oh yeah, THEY WON THEIR PLAY-IN GAME.
In addition, you could argue that incredible run revived Oakland’s college basketball program. Since the 2004-2005 season, the Golden Griz have just once finished outside of the top three of the conference that is now known as the Summit League. That’s a large amount to credit to three small victories, but who the heck would I be to downplay the significance of anything that happens in March?
Non-believers, however, would argue that this example is unfair to Oral Roberts. Why should a team that performed consistently all season and won the regular season Mid-Continent League Championship suffer for one late-season loss? Well, the answer, in my opinion, is simple: win the game. It’s as simple as that. We see teams in other sports that lose their conference or division and still advance further in the postseason than the team that won it (enter: the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who defeated the NFC North Champion Chicago Bears before eventually winning the Super Bowl). So really, just win the game.
(By the way, Oral Roberts actually received an at large bit to the NIT Tournament, where they lost to Maryland in the first round.)
So, with that example in the back of our minds, I revert to the original question: why do we love this week? Why do we love the conference tournament? Why do we love the underdogs that it provides to us?
The answer is simple, and it extends far beyond sport. Championship week is the ultimate romanticism of sports. For mid and low majors, it’s throwing away everything that happened over the past 5 months, stepping out onto the court for 40 minutes, and simply playing the game that we all love. Playing it with no baggage whatsoever.
Championship Week is a seven-day period where every boy turned man and every girl turned woman can relive his or her childhood dream of knocking down a buzzer-beater on a big stage. It’s a time when we can dream again. It’s a time for the child in all of us.
Championship Week is a time when we’re not embarrassed to be heard screaming at a television set at the top of our lungs. It’s a time when we find ourselves attracted to conferences we normally scoff at. We’re suddenly rooting for teams whose mascots we’ve poked fun at and we’re pulling for players who we’ve never heard of before and will probably never hear of again.
Championship week is proof that any one of us can shine when given the chance.
This week is all or nothing. It’s everything we live for in movies. It’s everything we dream of as kids. It’s every story we were read as a child.
Championship Week is the tortoise taking on the hare… and winning. It’s Mario, a lowly plumber, risking everything to save Princess Toadstool from Bowser. And for the Biblical followers out there, it’s David taking down Goliath.
Championship Week appeals to the romantic in all of us. It’s Molly Ringwald scoring Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles.. It’s Lloyd Dobler landing Diane Court in Say Anything.
But, perhaps the romantic best metaphor for Championship Week is that it’s Jack Dawson stealing Rose DeWitt Bukater from Cal Hockley in Titanic.
Why, you ask? Underdog Conference Tournament Champions out there, beware. As soon as you step off the Titanic that is your conference tourney, you’re prone to trouble, just as Jack was.
While we may passionately love the conference champions for a week, the love affair is often cut off too soon. The NCAA Tournament quite often returns us to the normalcy of the regular season, and those teams that showed “consistency” all year long return to the big stage.
How about this? Perhaps the two most beloved NCAA tournament runs in recent history have come from teams to LOSE their conference tournaments: 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU, both of which hailed from the Colonial Athletic Association and advanced to the Final Four after receiving “questionable” at large bids.
So, “Cal” somehow cheats his way off of the sinking ship and over towards “the promised land”, while “Jack” finds himself freezing to death in the North Atlantic. But hey, Jack was king of that ship. And we remember him for that.
By the way, I still contest that two people could have stayed afloat on that door.
Anyway, just some food for thought to keep your “romanticism” at bay…
Now, all that being said, how about some predictions…
I’ll predict the winners from each of the “Power Six” conference tournaments, and go through the entire Big Ten bracket. We’ll move from the bottom towards the top…
Pac 12-I like Arizona. A late surge from UCLA won the Bruins the conference title, but Arizona was hot towards the beginning of the season before fizzling out. Those teams tend to revive themselves around this time of year, so I’m going Wildcats.
SEC-Missouri. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut. The Tigers still have a ton of talent on this team that, keep in mind, earned a two seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. I think Frank Haith and his team pull off a little run, here.
Big 12-Kansas State. KU has been inconsistent this season. I still like the Jayhawks to make a fairly deep run in the Big Dance, but KSU just has an easier path to the conference title, in my mind. In my mind, KU gets upset by an underrated Iowa State team in the semifinals.
ACC-Duke. The conference is a two-headed monster this season. I think Duke and Miami meet in the title game, and the Blue Devils pull it out by double digits. At full-strength, Coach K’s squad is scary good.
Big East-Louisville. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this Louisville team has what it takes to go very, very deep this season. They’ll get a head start at the Garden throughout this week.
Big Ten-I’ll go round by round here. First round…
Minnesota over Illinois in the 8/9 matchup. The Golden Gophers are too talented and Tubby Smith is too good to not get at least one more win before a low-seed in the NCAA Tourney.
Michigan over Penn State in the 5/12 matchup. The Lions may be “peaking” at the right time, but come on.
Purdue over Nebraska in the 7/10 matchup. Purdue is also peaking at the time time, and the Boilermakers are just good enough to give anyone a scare in the later rounds. Look out for this team.
Iowa over Northwestern in the 6/11 matchup. This Iowa team is underrated, and Northwestern, in its current, injury-ridden state, is historically bad.
Indiana over Minnesota in a 1/9 matchup. I wanted to pick the Gophers. I’ll be rooting for the Gophers. I scratched and clawed to try to find a way to pick them…but I just don’t think they can do it.
Michigan over Wisconsin in a 4/5 matchup. We’ve mentioned consistency… It’s remarkable what Bo Ryan and his staff have been able to do. The Badgers have now finished in the top four in the Big Ten every year for the last 12 years. Nonetheless, I’ll repeat myself… I wanted to pick the Badgers. I’ll be rooting for the Badgers. I scratched and clawed to try to find a way to pick them…but I just don’t think they can do it. Michigan is too talented.
Ohio State over Purdue in a 2/7 matchup. Though I do think it’s closer than many think.
Michigan State over Iowa in a 3/6 matchup. Same thing goes… Iowa will be fighting for a possible at large bid, so watch out if you’re the Spartans.
Indiana over Michigan in a 1/5 matchup. It should be another thriller, just like Sunday’s game. In the end, I think Indiana is too determined, too experienced, and too talented.
Michigan State over Ohio State in a 2/3 matchup. This should also be epic. I think each of the four teams I have slated to make it to the Big Ten semis will get two seeds in the NCAA Tourney. In the end, I like Tom Izzo over Thad Matta.
Michigan State over Indiana in the championship. Did you hear Izzo’s speech after the Spartans’ final regular season game on Sunday? Enough said. Never doubt Michigan State in the postseason.
Now based on those conference tourney results, here are my four one seeds…
Indiana-They won the best conference in the country outright, and should get the overall 1 seed for it.
Michigan State-They won the tournament of the best conference, and, once again, deserve a one-seed for it.
Duke-The Blue Devils hasn’t lost since it got Ryan Kelly back. Assuming they win the ACC Tourney, there’s no reason they don’t get a one seed.
Gonzaga-It pains me to type this, but I think people would riot if the committee didn’t give Gonzaga a one, assuming that it doesn’t collapse and lose to St. Mary’s in the WCC Title Game later Monday night. If they win, they get a one seed.
That’s all for this week. Enjoy the madness, try to stay sane, and I’ll be back next Monday to preview the NCAA Tournament!
Brandon Kinnard, Titan TV Sports Director