Bruce Baskin of Chehalis became a college basketball fan in the late 1960s watchingWashington and Seattle University on TV in Seattle.He now covers NCAA basketball five days a week on WRMI , a 50,000-watt shortwave radio station in Miami.
It’s here. ESPN channels are showing 136 college basketball games over a 10-day period between March 6 and 15, making for a visual hoops orgy. It’s the annual “Championship Week” ball-a-thon and, to me, it’s the best part of the college basketball season.
Not to denigrate what comes next, of course. The NCAA Division I men’s college basketball tournament is the focus of the season, as it should be. Especially this year, when trying to nail down a clear favorite to win the Big Dance is as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall. We are in for one of the most memorable finishes to a season, with brackets busted across the nation because this may be the first time a No. 16 seed really does have a shot (however meager) of knocking off a No. 1.
But it’s still not the best part of the season for me.
I love Championship Week because ESPN shows ALL the conference tournaments, not just the elites like the ACC, Big Ten or SEC. You’re also getting the America East, the Southland Conference and the Patriot League. And that’s where the excitement is.
With all due respect to the major conferences, when’s the last time it really mattered who won one of their postseason events? Unless you get a final with a big-time underdog, the only thing on the line at these schools is their seeding when the final 68 schools are selected March 16. What would it matter if Michigan State beats Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, for instance? They’ll both keep playing regardless of the result. With some conferences getting five, six or seven bids, there is little drama attached to their tournaments because only their also-rans will be fighting to avoid the NIT, CBI or just going home altogether and calling it a season.
Things are a little different in the Atlantic Sun or Big Sky, where just one team gets an automatic NCAA bid, and that bid only comes by winning the conference tournament. Fans for Duke, Kansas or Georgetown have blasé attitudes toward these tournaments because going to the NCAAs is like getting another Happy Meal at McDonald’s to them, so winning these prelims doesn’t matter. On the other hand, it matters a WHOLE lot to Robert Morris or Bryant fans whether their school wins the Northeast Conference tourney because it may be the only shot they have of playing after Selection Sunday.
By all means, it’s fine to hold your excitement until things really get cooking on March 21. Most people wait until then, anyway. But between now and then, see if you can’t find some time to catch some of the smaller conference tournaments, especially their final. You’ll see players you’ve never heard of who may go on to be the next Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone or even (God forbid) Dennis Rodman – guys from smaller, off-the-radar programs who go on to productive, or even Hall of Fame, NBA careers.
Better yet, watch their fans. When they storm the floor after winning their conference title, it’s because winning means something to them. It’s not a de riguer practice such as whenever Duke loses an ACC road game; it’s the highlight of their season. The joy is real and speaks to the heart and soul of college sports.
Bigger doesn’t always mean better.
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