Tournaments take air out of regular season


March 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The button on my shirt reads, "Poo on Playoffs."

It is a good weekend to wear it.

Everywhere this weekend, -- and I do mean everywhere, from Manhattan to Missoula, Montana -- college basketball teams are playing conference tournaments.

The ACC is in Charlotte. The Big East is in New Yawk. The Big Eight is in Kansas City.

There are tournaments in Dallas, Dayton and Nashville. In Laramie, Wyoming. De Land, Florida.


Long Beach.

Riyadh. (Just kidding.)

Earlier, there were tournaments in Richmond, Albany, Norfolk. There was even one here in Baltimore, where college basketball is but a faint beep on the monitor.

To all of it I say: Read my button.

Poo on these playoffs.

I know these tournaments are watched by many, generate some thrills and occasionally create terrific stories.

I know I am in the minority, that the sporting public is mad for playoffs of any ilk, the win-or-else hook irresistible.

I guess I'm just old-fashioned. I think regular seasons should mean something. Not just in college basketball. In any sport. Games should matter if you're going to play them. But games mean less and less these days -- until the playoffs.

Pro basketball and hockey are, of course, terrible offenders. They play for months and months to eliminate only the lame from the postseason.

Pro football is catching up fast. Another round of wild-card games was added last season. You knew most of the postseason qualifiers by Thanksgiving.

Only baseball has resisted the temptation to sell as many playoffs as possible to television, reducing the regular season to little more than exhibitions.

But the worst offender of all is college basketball. The regular season doesn't mean a thing to most of the teams.

Games played from November to early March are just warm-ups. The only measure of success is making, and succeeding in, the NCAA tournament. And you know more than half of the NCAA qualifiers before the season begins.

The smaller conferences, such as the ones to which Towson State and Coppin State belong, award their postseason bid to the winner of their conference tournament. You can go 0-27, win the tournament and make the NCAAs (or at least one of the new play-in games). The regular season is literally worthless.

Coppin won the regular-season championship of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference by a couple of lengths this year. But because the Eagles were upset in the semifinals of their conference tournament, their regular-season success was irrelevant.

Four months down the drain in one bad night. It isn't right. Those four months should count for something.

A North Texas State team with a 5-23 record came within one victory of making the NCAAs last year. That just shouldn't happen. In a sane sport, there is a penalty for losing 23 of 28 -- no playoffs.

At least the smaller conferences have excuses. The finals of their tournaments are broadcast on ESPN. It is a chance for the schools to get some rare national exposure, plus a little television money. In some cases, such as Towson's, it creates a genuine happening.

I can almost understand it. But I also know they wouldn't do it without the money.

The NCAA could do something about that. It has a billion dollars in basketball money floating around. Give the smaller conferences a couple of extra nickels and they could do the right thing and let their regular-season winners advance to the NCAAs.

Of course, the chances of the NCAA doing that are about the same as the chances of UMBC beating UNLV.

The larger conferences, such as the ACC and Big East, also stage their tournaments only for wallet-padding. After enduring four months of warm-up games, fans get to see another round of warm-ups passed off as meaningful. Most of the NCAA field is already set before the tournaments begin.

The tournaments are disposable sporting events at the big-conference level, maybe interesting at the moment, but forgotten as soon as they are finished. They just don't mean anything. A team that wins the ACC tournament and loses in the first round of the NCAAs will be disappointed.

The tournaments also set up an unfortunate mentality. Many teams use their tournament as motivation for salvaging a bad season, as in, "We can still make our year." To me, again, a bad season should have its price -- no playoffs. Regular-season losses should matter. As it stands, they don't.

Maybe it wouldn't be so shameful if the NCAA didn't claim to be concerned about the amount of class time players miss. New rules have been passed, amid much trumpeting, limiting the number of practices and games. Cutting these conference tournaments would do much to meet both ends. But that would cost money, so it won't happen.

No, the tournaments make lively television, and what television wants, television gets. The tournaments are here to stay. Only the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Ivy League do without. They actually allow their regular-season games to matter. What a concept.

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