Conference Tournaments - Do They Matter

After two exciting months of baseball, the SEC Tournament gets underway this Wednesday, with the event set to take place in Hoover, Alabama for the 10th year in a row.

The participants and seeding order have been determined and the tournament promises to be an exciting five days of hardball action.

The merits of conference tournaments is a heavily debated issue in college baseball, as is the case with its basketball counterpart, and also with conference championship games in football.

Are they really necessary? Should they, and do they, carry any weight in terms of the selection process for the NCAA tournament?

The main part of the debate springs from the fact that in some cases a team who might not have otherwise had a chance to make the field of 64 before the conference tournament, makes a run through the tournament and plays their way into the field, either by winning the automatic bid or by playing well enough to warrant a selection in the eyes of the committee. This has the potential to adversely affect a team who previously might have looked set for a regional berth get tripped up in the conference tournament and then end up getting edged out by one of the aforementioned teams.

That, however, is mostly in the case of smaller conferences, or involves a bubble team from a bigger conference losing out to someone who's affected by the conference tournaments.

Recent history in the SEC has proven that not making the conference tournament doesn't necessarily mean your postseason hopes are dashed.

In the past four seasons, the SEC's ninth-place team has made the field of 64, after missing out on Hoover. In 2003, Florida made it into the field. In 2004, it was MSU, who helped themselves with a sweep at Alabama in the last regular-season weekend, who got in without making Hoover. And, in 2005, Auburn finished ninth, but ended up with a trip to Tallahassee for the postseason.

This opens up a whole other can of worms about whether or not mediocrity should be rewarded with a trip to the postseason, but then again, most people who follow the SEC will say that, regardless of whether or not it should be rewarded, if you finish near .500 in the SEC, you're capable of beating a good number of the other teams in the field. Whether or not it's exactly right to reward them is debatable, but the record speaks for itself. Three of those four ninth-place teams, with the exception being MSU in 2004, made it to the championship games of their regionals.

Whether or not finishing ninth in the SEC and still making it in doesn't as much diminish the necessity or importance of making the conference tournament, but it does make you think a little about the importance of what gets you in: a good finish.

That's not just the case with the SEC, but across the country.

Last year, the major glaring case was Louisiana-Lafayette, who went 19-5 in the Sun Belt, but was passed over for third-place South Alabama. The Jaguars had an edge in RPI and won two of three in their conference series, but Louisiana finished three games ahead in the standings and defeated USA in the Sun Belt tourney.

And, the only teams from major conferences who finished above .500 but did not make the regionals were Wake Forest, Long Beach St., and Memphis. On the other hand, Baylor, Stanford, MSU, and Missouri all got into the field despite having sub-.500 records in their conferences. Last season, it didn't prove to be a bad decision, since Stanford and Missouri both made it to the super regionals, and MSU made it to the final of their regional.

But, it could be argued that each of those teams had just as much of an argument to be included as did the four who were left out. But, they also had just as much of a reason to be left out as the others did. Wake Forest, with its lack of wins against quality competition, Long Beach St. with its barely above .500 record, and Memphis with its barely above .500 record in both C-USA and overall, and a couple of key losing streaks throughout the season.

If there was anything that was questionable, it was the inclusion of Missouri, and the exclusion of Louisiana-Lafayette, one team who'd played .500 ball until the last couple of weeks of the season, and another team who'd done well the entire season. It may well have paid off, with what Mizzou accomplished in the postseason.

True enough though, more often than not, a team that finishes around .500 in one of the major conferences and gets into the NCAAs as a #2 or #3 seed has more chance to do damage than one of the smaller conference teams that likely would end up being playing for, at best, a #3. There are a few occurrences when the mid-majors and smaller conferences have top teams capable of making postseason runs, but, for the most part, most of the automatic bid reps from smaller conferences end up getting eliminated early. The fact that baseball has more parity than its football and basketball counterparts is one of the things that makes it exciting. But the top teams usually still get most of the honors.

But, this season, with a number of teams from mid-majors that stand to finish well in their conferences, and a number of borderline teams contending for regional berths, then it may well be an issue.

That's what the debate is about - whether or not conference tournaments should a) be necessary, b) be a requirement for teams to be considered for the postseason, c) if a team that wins the regular-season title but fails to win the conference tournament (in smaller conferences) should still get into the field of 64.

Honestly, there are only a select number of cases where the conference tournaments really do make a difference.

But, if you are in your conference tournament, and you do well, it certainly doesn't hurt, whether or not you're already in.

In 2001, MSU went 4-1, knocking off South Carolina twice, Georgia, and then LSU in the title game, to win the tournament. That tournament win pushed the Dogs from a borderline #2 seed at best to a #1 in the Columbus Regional, which they swept through to advance to the supers.

Two seasons ago, the Dogs snuck in the tournament on the final day, but like 2001, made a run through the tournament, knocking off three eventual regional hosts (LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss) and South Carolina to win the tournament for the second time in five seasons. A likely #3 seed before the tournament, the Dogs ended up a #2, and in contention for one of the final #1 seeds.

A couple of other examples of how the SEC tourney has proved helpful have occurred in the last couple of seasons. In 2005, Ole Miss played its way into a national seed by advancing to the tourney final, and a year later, the Rebs played their way into a #1 seed by going one further and winning the tournament.

But, on the flip side, just as much as it can help you to do well, it can, however fairly or unfairly, punish you if you don't do well.

Last season, Arkansas entered the tourney with a 38-17 record, a second-place (18-12) finish in the West, an RPI hovering around the top 10, and a favorable finish in the homestretch. However, the Razorbacks went 0-2 in Hoover, and a seemingly tied up #1 seed was no more, though the Hogs still hosted. There's only a small shred of difference, if any, between being the last #1 seed and the first #2, as Arkansas was, but, it was the difference between getting to play Princeton in the first round instead of Oral Roberts (who the Razorbacks lost to and eventual regional champ). Ironically, the team who was the #1 in the Fayetteville Regional was Oklahoma State, who had gone 0-3 in the Big 12 tourney but had won 21 of 25 and 15 of their last 18 conference games before the conference tourney.

Note: Just in case you're wondering, the Big 12's tournament is a pool-play tournament, where the 1, 4, 5, and 8 seeds are put into a bracket, and the 2, 3, 6, and 7 seeds are put into a bracket, and each team plays three games. The top two finishers advance to the championship game. The ACC is adopting a similar format for this year's tournament as well.

Regardless, their effects are felt only in small doses, positively or negatively. When most of the conference tournaments get underway this week, the regional picture will be mostly sorted out, minus some seeds and only a couple of spots. At this point, there aren't too many teams who can play their way in or out, or up or down.

Besides that, some conference tournaments do a lot to help clear up the picture as opposed to muddle it up. It helps to iron out a few of the remaining bubble spots, solidifies seedings, and it gives an idea of how well some teams might stack up in the postseason, when it's all about facing the best of the best back to back. And, besides, more often than not, the right team ends up winning the conference tournament. Upsets do occur, but all across the board, from major conference to small, the top seeds fare well for the most part.

Take last year for example: 14 of 28 regular-season conference champions won their conference tournaments (the Pac-10 and Big West don't have conference tournaments). Four others who didn't get the automatic bids got into the tournament anyway. In the Big South, Southland, Horizon, Ohio Valley, Colonial, America East, Atlantic 10, Metro Atlantic, Northeast, and Mid-American, the #1 seeds didn't win their conference tournaments, and didn't make the field of 64. In four of those tournaments, the #1 seed lost in the championship game, and in all but five cases, the #1 or #2 seed at least made it to the tournament final.

Conference tournaments benefit most the teams who not only have the talent, but the ability and depth to get them through up to five days of baseball. And, sometimes it helps to just get hot at the right time, as with MSU in 2001 and 2005.

Whether or not they're necessary, most conference tournaments, especially the SEC's diamond showpiece, provide a few days of excitement, and allow fans to see some matchups that they might not have seen in the regular season, or repeats of some good regular-season matchups. Also, it gets everyone excited and prepared for the real postseason fun that will be underway on the first of June.

And, no matter what, the premium should still be and is on finishing well in conference play. It not only gives you favorable seeding in the conference tournament, but it also gives you favorable position for the NCAA tournament.

Besides that, it makes your fans a heck of a lot less nervous on Selection Monday.


Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at emg03e@gmail.com.


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