After some mid-major to low major madness (and there’s still more to come), it’s time for the Big Boys of College Basketball to slug it out in their respective Conference Tournaments. A large percentage of these teams have already clinched spots in the NCAA Tournament when the field is announced on Sunday evening. So, that begs the question, why do it? Well, the answer is obvious…money. These tournaments are cash cows for the conferences and as long as cash is king in college sports, they aren’t going anywhere.
That’s where the Atlantic Coast Conference is the trendsetter. The ACC has been putting on its Conference Basketball Tournament since it was formed as a conference. The first tournament was held in 1954 at the old Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of North Carolina State in Raleigh, North Carolina. In fact, the first 13 ACC Tournaments were held there, with N.C. State appropriately winning the first 3 titles.
Unlike some conferences since 1961 the official bylaws of the ACC have declared that the tournament champion is the official league basketball champion. While the team that survives the Regular Season on top may claim a championship, unless you win the tournament, it’s not official in the conference record books.
Formed in 1953 as an off-shoot of the Southern Conference, the ACC had 8 charter members: Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Clemson. Outside of Maryland, they were all southern schools and given the basketball prowess between the four North Carolina schools, the area was and is still referred to as “Tobacco Road”. Maryland left the ACC for the Big-10 in 2014 (and I still can’t get used to that), and in a case of bad conference moves South Carolina bolted in 1971. It worked out eventually with South Carolina joining the SEC in 1992, but while South Carolina was floundering as a member of the old Metro Conference the school had to be wondering why it left in 1971.
To members of the ACC, the conference tournament was often bigger than the NCAA Tournament. It certainly has been for the North Carolina schools. Duke leads the way with 19 tournament titles, North Carolina has 17 championships, N.C. State 10, and Wake Forest 4. That’s a combined total of 50 of the 62 tournaments. Of the 8 charter members remaining in the ACC only Clemson has never won the tournament.
The most famous of the ACC tournaments may have come in 1974 when N.C. State – led by David Thompson – beat Maryland 103 – 100 in Overtime at the Greensboro Coliseum. In those days, only the tournament winner went to the NCAA (no need for these “bracketologists” in those days) and so N.C. State was the conference’s representative and all they did was win the title a few weeks later in Greensboro. Had they not beaten Maryland that would have never happened. A year prior in 1972 – 73, N.C. State led by coach Norm Sloan and his Lindsey Nelson looking sport coats were 27-0 but couldn’t participate in the post-season due to an NCAA violation. Seems assistant coach Eddie Biedenbach (who would go on to be a head coach at UNC-Asheville) committed a recruiting violation by playing in a pick-up basketball game with Thompson while he was on his recruiting visit to N.C. State.
But while the ACC has been about history and tradition, like most other things in college sports that’s gone the way of conference expansion. The conference now has 15 teams and there’s nothing Atlantic Coast about Notre Dame. The ACC’s invitation to Notre Dame came for one reason. There will come a day when Notre Dame has to join a conference in football and by putting all their sports in the ACC except football, there seems to be only one logical landing spot when that happens. To show you the changing face of the ACC Tournament, consider that the last four champions are all from outside of the State of North Carolina: Florida State in 2012, Miami in 2013, Virginia in 2014, and last year Notre Dame. Three of those schools are transfers from the old version of the Big East Conference. The conference of Tobacco Road hasn’t had a Tobacco Road team win since 2011.
As the conference has migrated further north, the tournament has shown a willingness to do the same. This year’s tournament is at the Verizon Center in Downtown Washington, D.C. It’s the second time the arena has hosted the event and the third time the tournament has played in the metro D.C. area. The old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland hosted the event in 1976. Next year, the ACC takes its tournament to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York for a two year run. That’s solely a nod to Syracuse and it’s large fan base in the New York City area. The Tournament won’t come back South until 2019 when it goes to Charlotte before returning to Greensboro in 2020. Perhaps the moving of the tournament will open more doors to fans. There hasn’t been a public sale of ACC Tournament tickets (so that the general public can walk up, buy a ticket and watch) since 1966.
North Carolina is the top seed this year and while it won’t surprise me to see UNC win the title for the 18th time, given this UNC team’s inconsistency at times, it likewise won’t surprise me if they lose their first game. Virginia is the 2nd seed, Miami the third seed, Notre Dame 4th, Duke 5th and Virginia Tech a surprising 6th. I give you those six teams because in the tournament’s history no one lower than a 6th seed has ever won the championship so figure the winner comes from that group. No ACC team has been very consistent this season so it likewise won’t come as a surprise if someone outside the top 6 gets on a run and wins, but don’t count on that being Boston College. The Eagles have the distinction of being the first ACC team since Maryland in 1986 – 87 (in the wake of Len Bias and the firing of Lefty Driesell) to go winless in the conference. Figure the first couple of days of this tournament will be played in a half-filled arena, but attendance will pick up as will television viewers because for those of us who grew up in the South, this tournament remains the Rose Bowl of college basketball and will always stand as the “Granddaddy of them all.”
Meanwhile, the SEC takes over Nashville this weekend for its annual conference tournament. Texas A&M is the top seed, but if you think anyone other than Kentucky is going to win the tournament, I’d think again. First of all they have the most talent in the conference and while they’ve been inconsistent at times, they still have Jamal Murray who I swear is one of the best players I’ve ever seen. Secondly, the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville is going to look like Rupp Arena South. There is nothing bigger in Kentucky than basketball and if the Wildcats make it to the semi-finals on Saturday, there will be 18,000 people in blue in that arena. That’s good enough for me. If you are looking for a surprise team to make a little run, then how about Alabama. The Crimson Tide made the oddest hire of the off-season when they plucked Avery Johnson from the NBA studio at ESPN to be their head coach. He’d been fairly successful as an NBA coach, but had never coached college. He coaches his team like an NBA team…tough on defense and good in the half-court on offense. The Tide are seeded 10th and there’s no way they can win 4 games in 4 days, but if Alabama basketball was a stock, you’d buy it for the future. The most overrated team in the field has to be LSU. They have the best NBA prospect in the field in Ben Simmons. Other than that, this team is a mystery. Among their losses is a beat down at Tennessee. Tennessee finished 12th in the league.
The Big-12 Tournament is in Kansas City. Kansas is the top seed having won it’s 12th straight Big-12 regular season title. The Jayhawks don’t always win the tournament though and have a real issue in the second round in either Baylor or more likely Texas. On the other side of the bracket watch out for West Virginia. The Mountaineers were at the time they joined an odd-fit in the Big-12 and remain such, but they are seeded second and can easily win 3 games in three days.
Long before Payton Manning made football cool in Indiana, basketball was king and I still believe it to be such. The Big-10 tournament sets up shop at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Downtown Indianapolis this weekend with Indiana as the top seed. The Big-10 hype machine (CBS and ESPN who are both trying to secure Big-10 broadcast rights in the future) will hit us over the head with how good Big-10 basketball is and it is competitive at the top with Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue the top 4 seeds. But this is also the conference tournament with a pair of grease fire first round games (like a lot of other less hyped leagues) on Wednesday when Minnesota plays Illinois, and Nebraska plays Rutgers. Watch out for 5th seeded Iowa although I’m not sold on them and 6th seeded Wisconsin. Bo Ryan walked away in December to give his long time assistant Greg Gard a shot at the head coaching job. He’s got it now and a team that’s playing its best at the right time.
The Northeast part of the country is filled with what I called “Big East Apologists.” You know the type the Big East is the greatest basketball league in the nation. Well at one time you could make that argument in the days of Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Syracuse, and Boston College. You can’t make that argument now. This version of the Big East looks more like a mid-major than anything else for a couple of reasons. Yes Villanova is still there as the top seed, but Georgetown is the 8th seed and St. John’s is just awful as the 10th seed in a 10 team tournament. When the ACC raided the Big East and the Big East basketball schools got pissed and took their toys to make a new league they added, Butler, Xavier and Creighton. All nice basketball schools and for its part Xavier is really good, but the Big East isn’t what it used to be and don’t buy the hype that it is. The other problem the conference has is that they made a dumb decision and put their games on Fox and primarily on Fox Sports 1. In fact the entire tournament – outside of the Championship game – will be on FS1. The Big East wants to be known as the best true “basketball” conference in the country. Actually that honor belongs to the…
Atlantic 10, whose tournament returns to Brooklyn this weekend. This could be the best of all the tournaments this weekend because the top 4 seeds are all excellent basketball teams you’ve probably never watched. Dayton is the top seed, followed by VCU, St. Bonaventure and St. Joseph’s in the top 4. Then you have George Washington a 5th seed (they beat Virginia in November), and Davidson as the 6th seed. Outside of Dayton and St. Joe’s there probably aren’t any other schools assured of playing in the NCAA Tournament which means there is a lot on the line in this one. The bad part is other than the championship game on CBS on Sunday afternoon, the rest of the tournament is buried on something called the American Sports Network (which I’ve never been able to find), the NBC Sports Network and the CBS Sports Network. I have those channels on Direct TV, but I’m probably in the minority.
I still count the American Conference as a major conference when it comes to basketball. Football is a different story, but in basketball the conference is still one of the nation’s elite. However, the American this year may struggle to put more than its tournament champion in the NCAA field after its tournament in Orlando. Temple is top seed, but they don’t strike me as an NCAA type team, Houston is seeded second and if they don’t win the tournament they aren’t going, ditto for third seed Tulsa, and the bracket guys all have 4th seeded Cincinnati as one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that. Same for 5th seeded U-Conn. They play Cincinnati in the first round and the loser figures to have no chance at the NCAAs. I’m not sure the winner will either so the best thing a team can do is take it out of the committee’s hands and win the tournament and get the automatic bid. The American figures to have a coaching overhaul this off-season. Memphis is just mediocre and that’s not going to work in Memphis where basketball is king, South Florida clearly made a bad hire in Orlando Antigua from Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, and poor Ed Conroy at Tulane. He keeps taking crappy jobs and you tend to get fired at crappy jobs, particularly when you finish last in a 10 team league
Finally if you are looking for basketball central, try one of my favorite places…Las Vegas. The PAC-12 tournament returns to the MGM Grand Garden Arena with Oregon as the top seed, but watch out for Cal. You need NBA players to win championships in College Basketball and Cal has two of them and a team that’s playing its best right now. Just across the road at the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV, the Mountain West takes over with San Diego State as the top seed. This figures to be a one-bid league so the conference champion will be the only one secured of a spot in the field.
As of today, there are 8 teams in the field: Austin Peay from the Ohio Valley as an 8th seed, Yale, the regular season champion from the IVY League, Northern Iowa the 4th seed from the Missouri Valley, UNC-Asheville a 4th seed from the Big South, Florida Gulf Coast, a 4th seed from the Atlantic Sun, Iona, the second seed from the Metro Atlantic, UNC Wilmington – the 2nd seed from the Colonial (who by the way finished dead last in the conference just two years ago), and Chattanooga, the top seed in the Southern Conference. Chattanooga is the only number 1 seed to win the conference tournament thus far. As you can see, March is already mad and it’s only going to get better.