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Capping Tournament Play

Handicapping the NCAA tournament isn’t an easy thing, of course. Everyone’s done the office pool, picked the wrong 12 over the 5, taken them to the Sweet 16, and gotten crushed in the bargain. When the NCAA’s roll around, we’ve got teams that would never normally play each other matching up, leading to chances to exploit the line – or get hammered by it. It’s tough to pick a certain winner between teams that don’t have a ton of experience against each other, especially if the experience was in the preseason.

Based on that logic, it seems that the conference tournaments would be easy pickins. These teams have seen each other during the season, and in many cases have played each other twice. So why do we so often see teams emerging at the top of the heap in their conference tourney that might not have gotten an at-large bid without a conference tournament?

There are a few reasons for this phenomenon.

Complacency is one of them. A lot of times, teams will daydream through the conference tourney if their season’s been successful. Sure, seeding is an important thing, but the players aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking one step ahead to the Big Dance, and ignoring the little one right in front of them. And, very often, they haven’t been forced to make the adjustments over the course of the season that the lesser teams have.

Another component in the conference tournament Cinderella phenomenon is what I like to call the “kitchen sink” phenomenon. Teams that have been on the verge all season long have learned what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Their rotation has changed, excluding players who aren’t performing, and their schemes have been tinkered with. And they’ll often throw out their entire bag of tricks at another team: everything but the kitchen sink.

The NBA draft, of all things, also contributes to this. It used to be that a senior-laden team was a lock in the NCAAs as well as in their conference tourney. That’s not the case any more. Witness Kansas in 2005 as Exhibit A. The teams that are heavy with seniors often stagnate during the season, and old emotional wounds come to the surface as the seniors battle for supremacy. The teams that advance deep into the NCAA tournament, and the ones that make noise in the conference tourneys, are the younger teams. The reason: younger players have a steep learning curve, and can settle into a spot at the end of the season.

The conference tournaments, finally, are a coach’s paradise. A marginal coach usually doesn’t win with good players, but a good coach can win with marginal players. The battle of the guys in suits is as crucial to the game itself as the guys on the hardwood.

With all of that said, this time of year is the most exciting in college basketball – and maybe the most exciting in all of sports. The players will keep their eyes on the prize – and we’ll need to keep our eyes on the surprises.

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