As we say goodbye to February, and hello to March, with all due respect to those of you who believe that things other than tournament basketball are the best sporting events, to me it’s Christmas time because in my humble little opinion there is nothing like tournament basketball. That applies to all levels from the midget leagues to the NCAA. I don’t count the NBA, because I hate it. They are great athletes, but to me the basketball is revolting and the players appear to be largely overpaid babies.
The so-called “minor conferences” get things started with their tournaments this week. Although, the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and to a lesser extent, BYU would bristle at the suggestion that it’s a minor conference. But, frankly if your league includes San Diego, Pacific and Santa Clara, there aren’t any other ways to describe it.
The Atlantic-Sun was the first to get started with its quarterfinals at home sites last night. The Big South and Patriot follow tonight and the American East, Northeast, and Ohio Valley join the party tomorrow night. In recent years, Conferences like the Atlantic Sun have rewarded the regular season champion and higher seeded teams with home games all the way through to the title game. Florida-Gulf Coast won the A-Sun’s Regular Season title and if they keep winning they’ll host the Championship game in their own gym in Naples, Florida. Want to bet there are plenty of knee high colored socks in that crowd?
Ditto for the Big South, which plays the first round between it’s bottom feeders at home sites, then moves the next two rounds to the home of the Number 1 seed, in this case Winthrop. After the semi-finals, the highest remaining seed will host. The Big South has experimented with neutral sites including the Roanoke Civic Center (which until Berglund Chevrolet starts cutting checks for me to use it’s name in connection with the arena, it will always be the Roanoke Civic Center), the Vines Center at Liberty University, Campbell University and until they bolted the Big South for the Sunbelt at Coastal Carolina’s arena near Myrtle Beach.
By this time next week, 13 teams will earn spots in the NCAA field via automatic bids. That includes one team from one of the so-called “mid-major” conferences the Missouri Valley. The Big East tournament has the longest single run of any conference in one location as the conference celebrates 35 years at Madison Square Garden. The second longest run belongs to the Missouri Valley which this year for the 27th consecutive year plays its Conference Tournament in Downtown St. Louis.
Generally, you might think of St. Louis has a baseball city and the residents do love their Cardinals, but the City loves basketball as well. The high school hoops in the City is pretty good and just across the Mississippi River sits one of the best basketball states in the nation in Illinois, although you wouldn’t know it by the state’s flagship University as the Illinois Fighting Illini are just poop. The Chicago Public League title is hotly contested in the Windy City in mid-February and they along with the rest of the state have to run a gauntlet of about 5 to 6 games just to get to the state tournament where teams are required to play two games in less than 24 hours to win the Championship.
The Missouri Valley conference has 4 schools located in Illinois, 1 in Missouri, 2 in Iowa, 2 in Indiana and 1 in Kansas making St. Louis the perfect place for what the conference calls and has copyrighted as “Arch Madness.”
Lest you think that good basketball hasn’t ben played in the “Valley”. The Big “O” Oscar Robertson played in the MVC when Cincinnati was a member. Long before he wore the colors of the New York Knicks, Walt Frazier led Southern Illinois to an NIT Title. Bradley’s Hersey Hawkins came out of the Chicago Public League to become an NBA All-Star. Dead eye Kyle Korver was part of a Creighton program to win a record 12 MVC Tournament titles before the school left for the Big East, Doug Collins played at Illinois State before staring in the NBA and representing his country in the 1972 Olympics, and in 1979 a pretty fair player from French Lick, Indiana named Larry Bird led the Indiana State Sycamores to the NCAA Title game. The match-up with Michigan State and Magic Johnson frankly ushered in the attention the tournament receives today and set the stage for Magic v. Bird in the NBA for the next decade. Just three years ago, Wichita State with a bunch of shelter mutts that no one wanted, including coach Greg Marshall who graduated from Roanoke’s Cave Spring High School went undefeated through the Valley’s Regular Season, won the tournament and didn’t lose until the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to Kentucky.
This year, there’s plenty at stake during the Valley’s 4-day run in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. Both, Wichita State and Illinois State are among the nation’s top 50 teams in the NCAA’s RPI, but the school of thought is that to ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament that they are going to have to win the title and the automatic bid. Illinois State may be able to sneak in to the First Four as one of the last teams if they lose in the Finals, but Wichita State is probably out of luck without winning the tournament.
Winning the tournament title hasn’t be easy for either program. Before wining the Valley tournament in 2014, Wichita State hadn’t won the title since 1987. Illinois State hasn’t won since winning back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998. Of the current conglomeration of Valley teams, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa have the most titles with 5 apiece and Northern Iowa has won 4 of the last 8 including the last two. The only two current members of the Valley to never win the tournament are Loyola of Chicago, which is relatively new to the league and was no doubt added to increase the chances of recruiting in the talent rich Chicago Public League, and Evansville, which used to be known more for the uniforms that looked like T-shirts with the short sleeves.
We can debate until we are blue in the face whether conference tournaments are worth it. There’s some validity to the argument that in the so-called Power-5 leagues it makes little difference who wins the tournament as in the ACC for example at least 9 and maybe 10 teams will get into the NCAA field. But, in places like the Missouri Valley, it’s an opportunity to shake off the regular season and start over with a chance to go dance and that’s what makes March so special and creates moments that live forever.