Conference tournaments provide hope for athletes until the end

Brian Kimmes

Brian Kimmes

March Madness has arrived. For the next three weeks, everybody becomes an expert in college basketball. We brag about how we picked the miracle upset while forgetting we picked six other upsets wrong. We pat ourselves on the back for nailing every game in the West bracket while failing to mention we got only three games right in the East bracket. The NCAA tournament consumes us.

During the days leading up to the tournament, the topic of conference automatic qualifiers heats up to a fever pitch. Conferences host an end-of-season tournament in which the winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

This process sounds simple enough, and it seems like something everybody can agree on, but it is not. Analysts cry foul when a team with a sub-500 record wins four games in a row to “steal” the automatic bid from a better team.

Critics of the automatic qualifiers often sound off on how it is ridiculous for a team that has a mediocre-to-poor regular season can win an opportunity to play in the Big Dance. They also complain that if an “unworthy” team secures the automatic bid, the team takes away a spot in the Big Dance from a superior team. They bellow about how the 65 best teams do not make the tournament. A conference that only had one good team during the year may receive invitations for two teams.

To me, it is ridiculous to get upset when a team rolls off four straight wins to get into the NCAA tournament. If a team defeats four of its rivals in a row, it obviously has some talent and is playing great basketball, so they have a good chance to do well in the Big Dance.

Also, if a mediocre team “steals” an at-large bid, so what? No team with the potential to win the national championship is going to lose an at-large bid. In any given year, only about eight teams have a realistic chance to take home the title. Those eight teams are either good enough to win their conference championships, or they will be the first teams selected in the at-large process. The only thing a “steal” does is replace a mediocre team with a different mediocre team, which is just fine with me.

The teams most affected by the “stealing” of bids are the middle-of-the-road teams in the power conferences. Frankly, we see those teams play enough that my desire to see those teams play ranks right up there with changing a burned out light bulb. I’ll do it, but I won’t enjoy it. I’d rather see Bucknell or Hofstra than Syracuse or Georgia Tech again. Perennial powerhouses are not the underdog stories I love to root for and what make the tournament special.

The last, and most important reason to keep the automatic qualifier attached to the conference tournament is hope. By taking away the qualifier, you take away hope.

You take away the hope of the die-hard fan, who never stops believing the stars can align just right and his team can play the perfect game he has been waiting for all season.

More importantly, you take away the hope of the players. As long as the players have an opportunity to play in the Big Dance, it gives them motivation to play hard, and it gives them hope that their hard work will pay dividends. With the current system, a team can lose 30 straight games, but if they win four in a row and win the conference tournament, they get to go dancing.

People who want to take this away from students should be ashamed. They are putting their selfish interests to see a slightly better mediocre team ahead of the student-athletes’ hopes of playing in the Big Dance – the hope that a player can extend his final season by one more game. Most student-athletes will never play in another basketball game. To deprive these students of the opportunity to extend their career, by one or two games is just plain wrong.

The automatic qualifier, as it stands, allows for every student to have the hope of reaching the NCAA tournament until their final game is done. The travesty is not allowing a few weaker teams into the tournament. The travesty is cutting short the student-athletes’ dream midway through their final season.

#1.883398:2207854054.jpg:ball_talk.jpg:Brian Kimmes, Ball Talk: