"We're just going to stop by and make an appearance. Show our faces. And then we'll leave, okay?"
If you've been watching Championship Week, you've noticed that the supposedly better teams, particularly in the major conferences, play with all the fervor of a husband being dragged to a couples shower. Can you blame them (that's not a rhetorical question)?
Top-seeded Syracuse put in two hours of face time at the Big East tournament on Thursday. Jim Boeheim's team, the nation's No. 1 team just a week earlier, lost to Georgetown in the first round (or was it the third round? It's all semantics) of the Big East Championship. This particular tournament featured a double bye, and after just 40 minutes of hoops at Madison Square Garden, the Orange waved bye ... bye.
The Orange spent the afternoon just a mile from 30 Rock and they were likely back home, snugly ensconced in upstate New York that night in time to catch "30 Rock." They were just the most vivid example. Five of the six top-seeded teams in the ACC tournament lost their opening-round games. The sixth, top-seeded Duke, trailed the conference's last-place team, Miami, by three at the half on Saturday.
And in Indianapolis on Friday in the Big Ten tournament, Ohio State needed a 37-foot buzzer-beater by Evan Turner (with an assist from John Beilein) to beat a Michigan team whose record was sub-.500. The Buckeyes then needed two overtimes on Saturday to elude Illinois, a team that began the week on Joe Lunardi's bad side.
There are two dynamics at play here. First, desperation is a most potent narcotic. For underachievers (e.g. North Carolina) or simply poor teams ("Hail, Hail, to Michigan!"), conference tourneys are one final shot at redemption. A chance to render your forgettable, regrettable season nothing more than a mulligan. Houston began the week with a 15-15 record, but by Saturday the Cougars were Conference-USA champions and now they're dancing.
The second phenomenon is what I call the "Are we lost?" scenario. Ever find yourself driving on an unfamiliar road (let's pretend your car lacks a GPS and your cell-phone battery died; work with me here) and unsure if you're headed in the right direction? Do you turn around and return to a place you know, which is safer but will surely cost time? Or do you continue onward, completely committed to what will either turn out to be the shortest route or ... a date with the Blair Witch?
That is the conundrum facing NCAA tournament-bound teams at conference tourneys. Syracuse knew it would be a one seed before it even entered Madison Square Garden Thursday. Why play three games in three days when the tournament that really matters begins next week? At the mid-majors level, conference tourneys are legitimate play-in games for all but a select few. But at the BCS conference level, where anywhere from five to eight teams often have already punched their ticket, there may be that sense of, "Should we just turn around and head back to the gas station to ask directions and buy some Red Bull?"
What is the proper play? The Orange are probably well aware that no school that has lost in the first round of its conference tournament has ever gone on to win the NCAA championship, but I doubt they worried about that too much as they slept in their own beds on Friday and Saturday evening.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, won two games in the Big East tournament before losing in the semifinals on Friday evening. Because of "Perfect Storm" weather in New York City on Saturday, the Irish were forced to bus back to South Bend, a twelve-hour drive, on Saturday. For the Drivin' Irish, "The Road to the Final Four" began at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
Were three games in three days and an all-day bus ride the way that Irish coach Mike Brey would have preferred to spend the week before March Madness? "I'm Coach Clark Griswold today," Brey texted Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune early in the trip, when his sense of humor was still intact.
Three games in three days? Georgetown played four games in four days and the Hoyas didn't even earn a commemorative T-shirt. If you think few people remember who won last year's conference tournament -- can you name the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC conference tourney winners of '09? -- nobody remembers the second-place finisher. When asked if the physical and emotional toll of the Big East tourney would have any lingering effects come next Thursday or Friday, Georgetown coach John Thompson III replied, "I don't know."
Is there a correct play here? Will West Virginia be emotionally spent from their victorious weekend in New York or will a trio of close finishes-the Mountaineers won three games by a total of seven points-propel them onward? It is ironic, returning to our "Are we lost?" metaphor, that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins mentioned a friend whose truck lacks a rear-view mirror because "I don't back up."
No matter the strategy, there is no denying that in a sport in which 65 teams -- and soon, regrettably, perhaps 96 -- qualify for the real post-season tournament, conference tournaments exist for one reason alone: programming. And programming equals money. And that's all brought to you (the programming that is) and to the conferences (the money, that is) by ESPN.
The SEC tournament concludes on Sunday. The Big South tournament ended last Saturday. The America East tournament began last Saturday, took a five-day hiatus, and then concluded this Saturday. Why? Because it's not baseball season and it's not football season and the monster must be fed.
And what we were left with is three-, four- and, in the Big East's case, five-day tournaments that provided a thrill or two (thank you, Mr. Turner), but were, for most teams -- the best teams -- an unwelcome distraction and obligation.
Was it worth it, West Virginia? Will you pay for that perfunctory performance, Syracuse? We'll see.