College basketball conference championships: lonely, unloved, forgotten

Imagine a world in which your college basketball-loving friends said the following things:

“I remember when Florida won the 2011 SEC regular season championship! So what if the Gators blew a lead against Butler in the Elite Eight that year? What a rich accomplishment that was after a few comparatively uninspiring seasons.”

“North Carolina finishing first in the ACC standings in 2012, beating out Duke — that’s the kind of moment you never forget. I still look back on that year with great fondness — that’s an achievement which will last.”

“I judge Bill Self and Kansas based on all the Big 12 titles he wins, not on what he does in March.”

“No matter what Tom Crean does this March, he’s already won the Big Ten. Indiana should thank its lucky stars it didn’t do anything rash the past offseason.”


You don’t have to agree with any of these statements. This is not a test in terms of right or wrong answers. If it’s a test, it’s meant to measure your own thoughts in a larger context.

Just how do you and your friends value a regular season conference championship in college basketball? It is a championship in most cases, though you’ll note that the word “championship” was not used in the ACC. The “ACC champion” label is reserved for the ACC Tournament winner. (I disagree with that way of proceeding and will never change my mind, but it is what it is, and that information won’t be hidden from you.)

Are regular season college basketball conference championships celebrated to this extent? You know the answer. What you see above is a Final Four-level celebration.

Are regular season college basketball conference championships celebrated to this extent? You know the answer. What you see above is a Final Four-level celebration.

The conference championship possesses so much value in college football because it is the gateway to the College Football Playoff, more than anything else. Conference opponents are played once, not twice (with the occasional exception created by the conference championship game). Therefore, head-to-head results are tiebreakers in a weighty sense. When two college basketball teams tie in a conference race after 18 games, any head-to-head difference produces seedings for the subsequent conference tournament, but it seems unfair to say that the No. 2 seed did not earn a share of the conference title. The dynamic is quite different, and on so many levels that our brains have become conditioned to assign a lot less significance to the achievement.

In part, the way college basketball is designed makes it harder to appreciate the value of the regular season conference championship (or for the ACC sticklers in the crowd, first-place regular season finishes). The cultural resonance an SEC fan base attaches to a football championship greatly exceeds the significance of a basketball championship in the ACC — partly because the ACC Tournament is such a big deal, but mostly because any fan base would (rightly, of course) value a Final Four over a conference title any day of the week.

See, that’s the sticky wicket with college basketball conference championships: One week after the conference regular season ends, the conference tournament runs its course and the brackets are announced. There’s no one-month period between a conference championship game and a bowl game to savor the journey of the regular season. This isn’t football.

Basketball moves at a different speed. Again, its structure just doesn’t facilitate the creation of a sports culture in which the regular season conference title is seen as a premium prize.

Consider all the teams who have ever underachieved in the regular season to a considerable degree, but then reached the Final Four or at least the Sweet 16 to wash away the grime of disappointment. Conversely, consider the teams (KANSAS, cough, cough) that regularly max out in the regular season but regularly fall short in March. The public imagination latches onto the March failure and not the November-through-February journey.

Last week, the focus of the casual sports fan was on the NFL Draft Combine and, on the weekend, Golden State-Oklahoma City.

Everyone’s just waiting for March.

It’s not fair, but it’s the way things are. Moreover, it’s not as though the Final Four isn’t the Holy Grail for college basketball’s power-conference teams. It’s not as though the Sweet 16 will cease to be the basic line of demarcation between upper-tier programs and second-tier programs anytime soon. Reputations and legacies are made in March — that shouldn’t be denied, and it shouldn’t even be raged against with great tenacity.

However, acknowledging how meaningful March is should not be seen as dismissing the road traveled to get there. If we stopped for a moment and gave greater weight to the conference championship (or first-place finish, for the ACC crowd), we’d view a number of programs and coaches differently.

Just try on this stat for size:

We’d all view Bill Self, Roy Williams, Thad Matta, and (don’t forget the last team on that list!) Ben Howland of UCLA (now at Mississippi State) in a sharply different light if our culture in college basketball prized the regular season conference title.

As conference regular seasons end — some already have, and the rest will end this upcoming weekend, save for the Ivy League — think about the work coaches did over two full months to bring a championship to their own corner of this vast 351-team landscape.

You don’t have to give March less importance in your thought world.

The modest proposal being advanced here: You can simply give November through February more centrality before you begin your immersion in March Madness.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.