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Monday, March 9, 2009

Conference Tournaments Play Key Role in March Madness

With conference tournaments underway and the Division I men’s basketball pairings to be announced on Sunday, we are officially in the middle of “March Madness.” For college basketball fans, the next four weeks are nirvana as every basket, steal or turnover has the potential to catapult one team to a title while leading to the end of the line for another.

For teams from major conferences already sure that they have secured one of 34 at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament, conference tournaments provide a dress-rehearsal for the real show the following week. However, for teams from conferences that rarely receive more than one tournament bid and for those schools from major conferences who are “on the bubble”, conference tournaments provide an opportunity to guarantee a spot in the greatest dance in college sports.

One of the enticements of this time of the year is the feeling of hope that perpetuates among basketball fans on college campuses across the country. After a long season, slates are wiped clean and any team winning their conference championship can earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how they performed during the regular season.

College basketball history is dotted with teams that struggled during the regular season, but parlayed a late hot streak into a conference tournament win and trip to the NCAA Tournament. One need look no further back than to last season when the University of Georgia, which had won only four Southeastern Conference games during the entire regular season, rattled off four amazing wins, including two in one day thanks to wind damage to the roof of the Georgia Dome, to claim an improbable conference title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the greatest example in college basketball history of a team making the most of an unexpected conference tournament run is the famed 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack under the guidance of the late, great, Jim Valvano. After registering a 17-10 record during the regular season, in large part due to a broken foot that forced star guard Dereck Whittenburg out of action for much of the season, Valvano knew that his team probably had to win the conference championship to earn a spot in the 48-team NCAA Tournament field.

The Wolfpack edged Wake Forest 71-70 and then defeated defending NCAA Champion North Carolina 91-84 to reach the ACC Tournament final. Facing the University of Virginia and All-American center Ralph Sampson, the Wolfpack completed their miraculous weekend with an 81-78 victory to reach the NCAA Tournament.

That victory sparked an improbable run that included a double-overtime victory over Pepperdine, a last second win against UNLV after trailing by 12 points in the second half and a thrilling 63-62 victory over Virginia in a rematch of the ACC tournament final. NC State then secured the NCAA Championship with a semifinal win against Georgia and a memorable last-second victory over top-ranked Houston in the NCAA Finals.

Even for teams already assured of playing in the NCAA Tournament, winning the conference tournament is often a determinate of future success. Of the last five NCAA champions, only the 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels didn’t claim their conference tournament championship. Last season all four Final Four teams had previously won their conference tournament championship.

So, as you get ready to set your NCAA Tournament brackets, you might pay close attention to what teams are cutting down the nets at conference tournaments. It is very likely one of those teams will also be cutting down the nets at the NCAA Finals in Detroit.

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