In selection process, conference tourneys are both pain and joy

Phil Jackman

March 15, 1993|By Phil Jackman

"Conference tournaments are dinosaurs and they should be done away with," said Billy Tubbs, leaving absolutely no doubt where the Oklahoma coach stood on the controversial question.

Of course, it should be pointed out here that the Sooners were among a half-dozen teams that surprisingly were left out of the 64-team field beginning play Thursday in the NCAA tournament.

The number of disappointed customers was about par for this spring ritual rapidly taking on the aura of a three-week Mardi Gras smack in the middle of Lent.

There were as many opinions on the subject as there were opinion givers during the CBS and ESPN selection shows. And the guy who seemed to make the most sense was Dick Vitale, rarely thought of as a deep thinker when a bouncing gesture and scream can generally get the job done.

Vitale was vehement about the regular season being "cheapened" by the pre-NCAA tournament tourneys, and the selection committee proved his point with a definite double standard marking its deliberations.

As Billy Packer pointed out, "Georgia Tech, with its showing in the ACC tournament, went from the bubble to a No. 4 seed [in the West Regional]."

Not that the Yellow Jackets don't deserve it after beating North Carolina and Duke twice. But if they were beaten in the first round of the ACC, they would have been by the phone awaiting a call from the NIT since they entered the ACC test no better than the sixth seed.

There's something to be said for getting a second chance and making it pay off, but when so many teams come through with big upsets to crowd into the NCAA field, one wonders what value is given to what went on during the first three months of the season.

Conversely, penalized by bad conference performances were the likes of Jackson State, a loser in the final after going 22-7, James Madison, Houston and, particularly, Nevada-Las Vegas. Just the other day, the Runnin' Rebels were adjudged the 19th-best team in the land, but a stumble in the Big West playoff took care of that.

Tubbs was quick to point out that his Oklahoma team had the third-best power rating in the Big Eight and ended up winning 19 times playing the league's second-toughest schedule. "But that

first-round loss obviously put us out."

It wouldn't have had not No. 7 seed Missouri, only 5-9 in the conference, caught fire and won the three-day showdown in Kansas City. As it is, the Big Eight has six teams in the NCAA field, same as the ACC, and there's always a chorus of dissent when one or two conferences so dominate the at-large picks.

Still, as selection committee chairman Tom Butters of Duke said, repeating all the chairmen before him, "The goal is to fill the field with the best teams possible."

Fact is, this cannot be accomplished, even allowing for all the automatic bids tendered small-conference tourney victors who have a habit of getting blown out in the first round.

True, they're tried and true paid-up members of the NCAA, too, but an element of pure masochism creeps into the picture when the likes of East Carolina (4-10 in the Colonial Athletic Association), Wright State, Rider and Coastal Carolina are annually fed to the No. 1 seeds Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan, respectively.

And UNLV, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Providence and Houston -- all in the top 40 in the power ratings -- are sitting home? At least such mandated oversights make for some good teams for the 32-team NIT field.

Naturally, the selectors labored long and hard, a fact the sportscasters continually apprise us of while heaping great praise upon them. They do seem consistently to make blatant errors, however, a situation that could be corrected by a firmer set of rules.

For example, East Carolina shouldn't even have been given the opportunity to win the Colonial. Why is it that all conference members are included in conference tournaments? Not even the NHL, which for years hardly eliminated anybody from its Stanley Cup playoffs, went that far.

The best excuse for the continued practice of having conference tournaments, Billy Tubbs, is tradition, their continued success and fan and alumni insistence.

These latter two reasons are not to be sneered at and discarded lightly. To countless thousands in this region, the ACC is bigger than the tourney that follows, and these are the folks that write those big contribution checks to the schools so that they can go somewhere and party for a weekend.

Maybe dinosaur is a good description of the practice. But who among us wouldn't be just as happy seeing those gigantic reptiles of the past trudging around again?

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