Monday, March 05, 2007

I Hate Championship Week

Technically, Championship Week started on Friday when Penn wrapped up the Ivy League regular season title, but things got underway in earnest this past Saturday. Since then, twelve teams, I think, have punched their tickets to the dance, mostly the small one-bid conferences, but some top-flight mid-majors got their invites, too (Creighton, Gonzaga). For the most part, the games have been overwhelmingly exciting. Championship Week has been must-see TV.

So, if you were to say that Championship Week was off to a screaming success, what would you be? You would be incorrect, that is what you would be. Championship Week peaked when Penn beat the hell out of Yale on Friday and it has been all down hill since and if the past is any indicator, things are only going to get worse.

I hate Championship Week. Well, not the Week itself; I'm glued to my TV. I just hate what it stands for. It is a stupid way to put 65 teams in a bracket (amazingly, it is even stupider that there are 65 spots to fill, but that's for another time). The best thing you can about it is that it does not discriminate. Quite the opposite: it screws the big conferences, the mid-majors and the small conferences, so I guess it has that going for it.

I was watching Winthrop and VMI kick off Championship Week Saturday afternoon. The two small schools were going at it for the Big South title. VMI is - well, was - the highest scoring team in the nation; they are the NCAA's best attempt at mimicking the Phoenix Suns. During the game, they broke the single season record for steals; both VMI and Winthrop were getting out in transition, knocking down shots. Neither team could build a lead, really, and after both teams made clutch plays down the stretch, Winthrop survived after the country's leading scorer came up short on a last-second three. Can't ask for much more than that in a basketball game, I don't think.

Well, it was excruciating to sit through. For me, anyways. All I could think about was how Winthrop shouldn't even have to be playing this game and if they, for some fluke reason, should happen to lose it, the Selection Committee will probably screw them out of at at-large birth. It has to have been the hardest I've cheered all season for a team I really didn't care about. I wasn't even happy for them after they won. I was just relieved.

Think about the circumstances behind this game: Winthrop ran through the Big South this year, going 14-0. They beat every team in the league, including VMI, twice. VMI, on the other hand, was 14-19 and finished sixth in the league. Sixth. But for some reason they were given the chance to play the team that positively owned the entire conference all year with the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament as the prize in a one-and-done format, in which anything can happen and anything almost did.

My question is simple: why are they allowed to do this?

Does the regular season count for anything? Do we really need a 14-game schedule just to seed teams for a three-day single elimination tournament? Because that is really all the regular season is worth under this set-up. The regular season has no bearing on determining who the best team from the Big South is. None. A three-day, single-elimination tournament will tell us that.

The Big South was the most glaring example - an undefeated team being forced to play a sixth (sixth!) place team - but Championship Week has been full of scenarios that never should have happened. Look at some of these:

Davidson was 17-1 in the Southern Conference and beat the College of Charleston twice, but they had to beat them a third time to prove they were the better team. Belmont finished two games back of East Tennessee State in the standings, but will go to the tournament because they beat ETSU on Saturday. Same with Austin Peay: they beat Eastern Kentucky twice and finished first in the league, but EKU will be playing in March and Peay will not. Creighton hadn't beaten Southern Illinois since 2003, yet they got a chance to play them with a bid on the line. Central Connecticut State was 2-0 against Sacred Heart in the regular season. The Sun Belt conference was gracious enough to provide us with a thrilling 4-seed vs. 5-seed matchup that no one outside of North Texas or wherever Arkansas St. is located cared about. The list goes on and on.

By my count, through a dozen tournaments, a team was forced to play another team it had beaten twice during the regular season for a third time to prove it was the better team. Four one seeds have lost in the conference title game; two other one-seed didn't even make the finals.

So what's my point? I want to see the best teams in the field of 65. That's all. Really and truly: that is all I want. And the best way to do that is to give the automatic birth to the winner of the regular season. It isn't even arguable that the regular season champ is the best team in the conference. They just are. The winner of a three-day, one-and-done tourney is...well, I don't know what they are, but they certainly aren't the best team.

Listen, I know ESPN and the conferences will never do away with Championship Week. The payday is too enticing for these little conferences. I get this. I just wish they would think for a second: what is more enticing for a small conference: having your title game on ESPN or making some noise in the Big Dance?

I would say making noise in the Big Dance is more important. Look at the MVC. Where the hell where they six years ago? But they consistently got their best teams into the tournament, made noise while they were in there, and now that conference gets regular season games televised fairly often. Well, what is the best way to make noise in the NCAA Tourney? By getting your best team in. How do you do that? By sending your regular season champ.

Wouldn't you rather defer the small paycheck now for the bigger, more consistent ones later own the road?

Think about the Big South: Winthrop has lost four games all year - at UNC, at Wisconsin, at Texas A&M and at Maryland. That's it. Hell, that might be the Final Four, and those were their only four losses. But they almost didn't even make the dance because these tiny conferences insist having these tournaments that no one even watches.

Seriously, in the grand scheme of things, no one watches the smaller conferences play. Yea, you get the real avid basketball fan and the random guy flippin' around with his hand down his pants - oh, basketball is on...who the hell is Austin Pee? - but no one really watches. Go into the office tomorrow and ask anyone who won the Belmont-ETSU game. No one has any idea (in fact, if you can find two people who know what ETSU stands for, I'd like to shake your hand; I'll never, ever forget what ETSU stands for, but that is for entirely different reasons...if you wanna know, ask, I'll tell ya) because they didn't watch. All they are good for is the opening round montage on CBS and storming the court highlights on ESPN. That's it.

The only conference who does it right is the Ivy League, but they don't even give out scholarships so clearly they aren't even taking basketball that seriously, which is a shame. (Like my boy JP said: "Hey, the smartest schools in the country do it the right way. Go figure.")

Maybe I just empathize with the players too much. These guys work their ass off all year, they earn it on the court for months, and then some team that sucked all year gets to play them on a neutral court to go to the dance. That just doesn't sit right with me. Those lower seeds don't deserve that chance. It just isn't right. Really, it isn't. Can someone pass me a Kleenex, please?

But it just isn't the little schools who get screwed. When some 11-17 school that sucks gets in, that means another team is getting bumped out. All levels are affected. Whoever is sitting at 65 on the bubble is gone.

Plus, when some BCS-school McNamara's a tournament because it is busting its ass tryin to save its season against seven teams who have already sewn up bids, it screws the rest of college basketball, too.

No good comes out of it. Yea, it is exciting for the Week, but no one even remembers in a week. Yea, it is smaller schools one big payday, but I think they are being short-sighted. I just want the 65 best teams in The Dance. That's all.

Would I give up championship week to make that happen? Yea, I would. Wow. Even I can't believe I said that. But I would.

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