John Feinstein: Power-Conference Teams Have Few Excuses

By John Feinstein
Monday, March 9, 2009; 1:07 PM

In the world of college basketball, there are lots of different names attached to this week.

The flacks at ESPN call it "Championship Week," in tribute to the network that invented college basketball (that's true, right? Dick Vitale hammered a peach basket to a wall in 1979 . . .) and televises most of the conference tournaments in one form or another. Others call it "Bubble Week," because it often feels as if there are 114 teams on the NCAA tournament bubble. Others just call it "Bracket Week," because the NCAA men's tournament bracket will finally go up on Sunday evening, somewhere in the middle of 52 minutes of commercials during a one-hour show on CBS.

In truth, this should be called "Excuse Week," because it often feels as if everyone has an excuse for every fifth- or sixth- or eighth-place team in the "major conferences." If you watch TNTIB -- The Network That Invented Basketball -- you will find yourself convinced by Sunday that there are about 156 teams deserving of a bid to The Selected Sixty-Five, and that 155 of them come from the major conferences -- even if there are only 73 teams in those six leagues, 57 of them from the Big East at last count.

News flash: The Big East tournament, which seemingly began last Wednesday, is now down to 16 teams. A winner should be crowned sometime soon after the Final Four. Five rounds of a conference tournament? Does anyone remember when UCLA played four postseason games to win the national championship? Talk about March going mad.

One of the annual rites of March, right along with the excuse-making, is the major-conference coaches and their TV apologists whining that there aren't enough bids available for those who somehow finish in the top 10 in their league. "You finish at .500 in this conference, you deserve a bid," is an oft-heard rant. Why? Nowadays, none of those conferences have a pure round robin anymore, and finishing .500 can be as much the product of your schedule as your ability.

There's no better example of this than Providence. Everyone says the Friars should be in, because they are 10-8 in the all-powerful Big East. Take a closer look: Six of those wins came against Rutgers (twice), St. John's, DePaul, South Florida and Seton Hall -- none of whom would ever be mistaken for good basketball teams. Two more were against Cincinnati, which finished 8-10 in the conference. Providence has two good wins -- Pittsburgh and Syracuse, both at home -- and lost to Saint Mary's early in the season.

So if it comes down to it, who deserves a bid more: Saint Mary's (if it loses to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game) or Providence?

There are plenty of other similar examples. One national college writer noted Monday morning that Northwestern had hurt its bubble hopes by losing Sunday to Ohio State.

Northwestern? Bill Carmody is a terrific coach and a fine guy, but Northwestern? Because it went 8-10 in the remarkably mediocre Big Ten? Because two of its wins were over Indiana, which fielded an intramural team this season? Because it lost to Iowa and Stanford, bottom-feeders in the Big Ten and Pacific-10? Yes, the Wildcats won at Michigan State and Purdue. For that, they merit an NIT bid -- nothing more.

What's upsetting in these arguments is that the big-conference apologists choose to ignore all the inherent advantages that they have. This is not a level playing field in any sense. Some radio talking head on Monday morning likened conference tournaments to a system that would allow the last-place team in a Major League Baseball division to have a one-game playoff with the first-place team to decide whom advances to the playoffs.

That's just wrong. For one thing, most bottom teams in a conference have to win three, if not four, games against different opponents to get their shot to play in the NCAA tournament. The top seeds almost always have one bye -- this year, the top four teams in the Big East get two -- and often play on their home courts. All of which is fine; they earned it.

What's more, conference tournaments -- particularly the one-bid conference tournaments -- are the lifeblood of college basketball. They give everyone hope, slim hope in many cases, but hope nonetheless during the dog days of February. That's a lot better than the Ivy League, which has no conference tournament and no hope for the bottom half of the league during the last month of the season.

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