With thirty-odd conferences out there, a whole bunch of teams are doing a whole lot of bumping. Conference races are sometimes like roller derby. Skate along as smoothly as you can, but keep a sharp eye out for your conference chums as you edge towards the finish line. They may not be able to out-skate you, but they are ready to knock you right off the track and out of NCAA Tournament consideration. No matter how far ahead you are, disaster could be looming.
Most of the teams from the smaller conferences have only one shot to win their way into the NCAA Tournament, which is to win their own conference tournament. It seems a shame when a team that has dominated a conference gets upset by a weaker conference-mate and loses an NCAA bid they worked towards all season. However, I suppose one could argue that if a team has not shown it belongs in the field strongly enough to earn an at-large bid, it is not too much to ask them to prove they are tournament worthy by finishing on top of their own. It is not my favorite way, as I'd prefer that an entire conference schedule be definitive rather than one weekend negating months of hard-fought play. Unfortunately, that battle has long been lost, and one upset in a conference tournament can undo a season's good work. One or two unlucky conference tournament losers will likely be sitting home ransacking the house for their glass slipper and cursing their fate (and the Selection Committee).
The carrot of a conference tourney win does give struggling teams a second chance (deserved or not), which keeps things interesting to the bitter end. Play great for one weekend and everyone forgets you stunk for two months. Isn't that what sports is all about? Ironically the little guys are usually the losers When Conference Tournaments Go Awry (soon to be a major motion picture). Big conference heavyweights who exit unexpectedly early just wait calmly for the Selection Committee to point that magic wand their way. They know they won't be turning into pumpkins as the clock strikes whatever time ESPN desires on Selection Monday. So they drop a spot in the seedings, no biggie.
Conference tournament upsets hurt bubble teams by giving away those precious at-large bids to the displaced big dogs, but since the bubbly ones are usually big conference teams with middling records, sympathy is hard to find. If you can't manage to finish a few games over .500 in your conference, have a lovely parting gift and enjoy the WNIT. If you are going to give NCAA bids to over half the teams from any one conference, the last teams in should really earn those spots. They ought not be both bubbly and iffy, like bad champagne. When middle of the conference finishers are middling, chuck those half-a-loaf hopefuls for a deserving mid-major. None of the possible picks is likely to scare the top seeds, but at least an upset, should it occur, would be extra frothy coming from a true David rather than a wannabe Goliath.
Handing out the automatic bid to the conference tourney champ hurts the smaller leagues in another way that is obvious, but not often mentioned when seedings come out. When the 28-3 regular season conference champ slips on a banana peel to be replaced by 17-14 average Josephine, what happens? The conference's one NCAA participant is not only a less capable team, but also receives a worse seed, maybe a much worse seed. The likelihood of an upset that would bring glory to our potential "little conference that could" is significantly reduced. The conference tournament might be fun and all, but isn't getting the best team in with the most favorable seeding really more important to the conference as a whole? If you want the world to see how well your conference stacks up, you need to send your best. When you only get one seed, you better plant it well.
What does it mean that small conference teams like George Washington, Bowling Green, Middle Tennessee State, James Madison, and Wisconsin-Green Bay have been ranked in the Top 25 polls late in the season? High-flyer George Washington, which has been in the Top 10 for weeks, appears not to be a fluke, sporting a 25-2 record and a Top 10 RPI. They beat Georgia and only lost to Tennessee and Maryland. Middle Tennessee State also beat Georgia (which seems to be the 'in' thing to do this year) and has wins over a couple of 25-30 RPI schools. Most of the rest do not inspire as much confidence. They may not have bad losses, but they have few good wins. They may have a win or two over lesser teams from big conferences, but they have rarely played, much less beaten, ranked foes.
If any of these teams are upset in their conference tournament, will they be left home, as usually happens? And if they do make the NCAA Tournament, do we believe? Do we see them advancing to the second weekend? I am trying, but my mind wanders and my vision gets cloudy. Somehow I just can't see it. Even a team as apparently accomplished as George Washington might be facing a steep uphill climb. The polls say Top 10, RPI says Top 10, and yet I am not sure...
Why don't I believe? Am I just a curmudgeonly sort who won't give the little guy a break? Is it that I almost never get to see those teams play and distrust the unfamiliar? Am I a snob who looks down on a team whose name requires two lines on their jerseys? Recruiting tickles at my brain whenever I see little schools with big records. Good coaching is critical, but, as we well know, recruiting is the name of the game. Year after year, top high school athletes head to the same big name schools, which carry rosters filled almost entirely with Top 100 prospects. Even bottom dwelling major conference teams grab their share of top prospects, and if they don't nab as many as the perennial Top 10 or Top 25 programs, they do almost always have a larger share of that "pie" than do schools from the Horizon League (Wisconsin-Green Bay) or the Sun Belt Conference (Middle Tennessee State), for example.
We know recruiting is what makes the basketball world go round. We know the recruiting pool for women's basketball is still heavily top loaded. We know the major conferences enroll the lion's share of the top players. In fact, that is one overweight lion. If the recruiting rankings we follow are real, there seems to be little chance some of these smaller conference teams with shiny records could hang with the big girls in the long run. They might catch some hulking giant sleeping through an off night, but in the end, no matter how well coached they may be or how hard they play, it is hard not to believe that the talent gap is still large enough - the elephant on the court. Certain games might get overlooked in the midst of a long season, but they won't during the NCAA Tournament. A small conference team might hit lucky and keep some local stars home so that they do shrink the talent gap, but can they erase it enough to make it through the minefield that is the Big Dance? The little guys draw low seeds, very rarely make it to the second round, and almost never advance beyond that. My inner Cinderella wants Delaware to get a bid and bump off a few big conference bid hogs, but my inner Scrooge says the Ghost of Tournaments Past will rule, and almost none of the striving small conference teams will make much headway once again this year, even though more than usual have been spotted in the Top 25 rankings.
I hope I eat my words. I hope I see George Washington match their ranking by making it to the Elite Eight, and James Madison get a bid and make me remember their conference affiliation, but I fear once March Madness is one week old and has saddened half the field, the teams that go bump in the night will be familiar names, which is easy on the memory, if not the imagination.
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