It's here, folks. March Madness. Conference tournaments will be going on all week leading into Selection Sunday and then it's time for The Big Dance.
But "March Madness" takes place long before the third weekend of the month.
The NCAA Tournament has gotten all the shine for far too long. Everybody rants and raves about the first two days of the Tournament and how great they are — and they are. And then after that it dwindles and dwindles until we're down to the Corporate Your Logo Here Basketball in a Football Stadium Final Four.
And allow me to say how much I, too, love the NCAA Tournament more than life itself. It's the best postseason in all of sports. It has produced some of the most iconic and thrilling moments in sports history. It's awesome.
But here's the thing: the conference tournaments are better. I understand I am in the extreme minority when it comes to this opinion, but allow me to explain my position and then at the end, I welcome your feedback as to why you may disagree.
Conference tournaments have all the intrigue and drama the NCAA Tournament does. While the stakes are obviously lower for your blue blood programs who don't have to worry about making it into the NCAA Tournament or being a top seed, you have hundreds of schools for whom the conference tournaments are the only way to have a chance to ever play a game in the NCAA Tournament.
And that doesn't just include the leagues which produce the 16-seeds which invariably — save one miracle from the UMBC Retrievers — get torched. Conferences like the Ohio Valley have some great basketball teams which produce tournament games like what we saw Saturday night between Belmont and Murray State, which was one of the best games I've watched all season.
East Tennessee State is one of the best teams in the country that most people don't know about and Wofford has a chance to steal the Southern Conference's automatic bid on Monday night and force ETSU to take a spot away from a bubble team. Games like that are what make college basketball so much fun, and, I would argue, the entire basis of the NCAA Tournament to begin with. We don't put the 68 best teams in the country in the Tournament; we put the 68 most deserving based on what you did relative to your competition this season.
But even while I could argue for the merits of the teams like Belmont and ETSU and conferences like the OVC and SoCon for days, I understand that even that is generally a lower level of competition than what the casual fan consumes — which means I need justification for arguing that power conference tournaments are better than the NCAA Tournament.
And while I would admit the basis of that argument is not as strong as the one for the smaller conferences, there is nothing that gets me going quite like a good conference tournament semifinal or championship game. You have teams which know each other inside and out battling for sometimes the third time that season, possibly fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, maybe fighting for a top seed or maybe just battling on the court because it's March and that's what they're supposed to do. You're telling me you don't want to watch another Kansas—Baylor or Villanova—Seton Hall matchup?
This is my favorite week of basketball season much in the same way Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. We all want the big, fun present we've been looking forward to all year, but in my opinion, the anticipation is what makes it worth it at all.
Enjoy this week. Watch the SoCon championship game. Enjoy college basketball.