Tournament time really quite a trip College basketball: Conference tournaments offer small leagues some exposure, bad teams a shot at an NCAA automatic bid and bubble teams a chance to boost their stock.

March Madness

March 01, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are played in small gyms and big arenas, on home courts and on dome courts, in backwater towns where they are the center of attention and major cities where they are barely noticed except by those who are there for the games. They are crammed into a little more than a week, a blur to those who watch and often the most important moment in the lives of those who play.

They are as high-profile as the one the Atlantic Coast Conference has held uninterrupted since 1954, as long overdue as the one the Big Ten will stage for the first time this week in Chicago, as no frills as any number of leagues from the SWAC to the MAAC to the TAAC. Their purpose? It depends.

Some look at conference tournaments as a way to make money for the leagues and their respective schools, or merely to get that one shot of national exposure brought by ESPN during its "Championship Week." Some coaches look at them as a chance for young teams to gain experience, for losing teams to erase the memory of a season gone bad.

And yes, for 28 teams to win a spot among the 64 in this year's NCAA tournament.

"Do I like conference tournaments?" said Texas Christian coach Billy Tubbs, repeating the question he had just been asked. "Last year, I loved the WAC tournament because we finished fourth during the regular season, came in second in the tournament and improved our position. [The Horned Frogs still didn't get a NCAA bid, but made the National Invitation Tournament]. Do I like it this year when we're first [in their division]? What do we have to gain?"

All but two conferences play them, both for men and women. The Ivy League has never held a postseason tournament, and the Pacific-10 did for four years before abandoning it in 1990 because of a lack of fan interest. Teams that you've barely heard of and players you've never seen will suddenly pop up, ready to be anointed as one of Dick Vitale's PTPers or Cinderellas.

Bubble is bursting

More than in any season since the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the conference tournaments will play a large role in determining the guest list this year. The proverbial bubble has become a virtual biosphere, standing-room only with the middle-of-the-pack teams from the ACC and Pac-10 jostling with wannabes from middle-of-the-pack leagues like the Mid-American and Conference USA.

Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, whose disappointing Badgers will need to run the table at the United Center to get the Big Ten's automatic bid, is among the minority of major-college coaches who believes that more consideration should be given to strong teams in mid- and low-major conferences that win the regular-season title but don't win their respective tournament.

"I always felt more teams from smaller conferences should get in," said Bennett, who coached Wisconsin-Green Bay to three NCAA appearances in 10 years. "We went 25-3 one year and got beat in the semis [of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament] and didn't get in. I know that's not a healthy view to take now, being in the Big Ten, but there are a lot of mid-range schools that are very strong."

None are stronger than the top two teams from the MCC, Detroit and Illinois-Chicago, or Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Murray State. They have the records and the power ratings and upsets to get a bid regardless of what happens from now until Tuesday night's conference final in Green Bay, but MCC commissioner Jon LeCrone and OVC commissioner Dan Beebe are crossing their fingers.

"Sitting in the conference chair, you almost have to root for your conference champion to lose," said LeCrone, who came to the MCC from the ACC. "If your No. 1 seed wins, you don't usually get a second team. Some years you should and this year, with our conference rated the 10th-best in the RPI [Rating Percentage Index], I think we will. But you just never know."

Said Beebe: "It would be better for us if Murray State won because then we'd be guaranteed to send our best team to the tournament.

The Racers won the Puerto Rico Classic over Christmas, beating Michigan and Arkansas. They ripped Austin Peay, 81-56, in yesterday's semifinals in Nashville and will play Tennessee State in today's final.

Detroit and Illinois-Chicago both have beaten Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan State this season. Detroit remains alive for the MCC title, but Illinois-Chicago was beaten yesterday in the first round of the tournament.

"We always look at the teams with 20 or more wins more carefully," said Kentucky athletic director C. M. Newton, chairman for this year's selection committee.

Bottom of the heap

A year ago, Tom Conrad was getting ready to take senior-dominated Charleston Southern to the NCAA tournament for the first time by winning the Big South tournament. This year, with mostly freshmen and sophomores, the Buccaneers quietly finished a 5-22 season with a first-round loss to Radford, which earned its first-ever NCAA berth by winning the Big South tournament yesterday.

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