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The value of a conference tournament championship? It’s all relative

It is a question that’s impossible to ignore during this week on the American sports calendar: How much is a college basketball conference tournament championship worth?

We’re not referring to the one-bid conferences here. It’s obvious that winning the SWAC or MEAC or Big West means everything to the schools involved. This is really a power-conference question, since the big-boy tournaments are about to start across the country. More specifically, this is not a discussion of bubble teams in power conferences. Naturally, when Ole Miss won the 2013 SEC Tournament, it got a bid to the Big Dance that it might not otherwise have gained. There’s no discussion to be had about a bubble team gaining an autobid. This is about upper-level seeds and whether they should chase this particular championship with all their might.

A discussion of the value of (power-) conference tournament titles begins with this fundamental tension point: Championships are always desirable, but the Final Four is the intended goal of each season for upper-tier power-conference programs. Those two realitites often — if not always — collide during this specific week.

Let’s dive into some examples to illustrate why it’s not always great for a team to win a conference tournament:

Vanderbilt Commodores forward James Siakam (35) celebrates with his teammates after their his team defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 71-64 during the final of the SEC men's NCAA basketball tournament in New Orleans, Louisiana March 11, 2012.  Vanderbilt has not won the SEC Championship since 1951. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman(UNITED STATES)

Vanderbilt Commodores forward James Siakam (35) celebrates with his teammates after their his team defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 71-64 during the final of the SEC men’s NCAA basketball tournament in New Orleans, Louisiana March 11, 2012. Vanderbilt has not won the SEC Championship since 1951. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman(UNITED STATES)

A classic case from the past — in 2012, but also 1996 — is Kentucky. The Wildcats rode long winning streaks into SEC Tournament finals. Big Blue lost those two finals, which might seem to have been huge disappointments at the time. However, those games cleansed the competitive palates of the Cats. Their coaches did not push them in those Sunday games. They were ready for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

They won the national title both years.

Last season, Duke’s defense was carved up by Notre Dame’s gorgeous offense in the ACC semifinals. That game gave Mike Krzyzewski a lot of film material through which he could teach his freshman-loaded starting five how to improve their halfcourt defense. Duke also wasn’t overextended during the ACC Tournament, therefore able to remain fresh in the NCAAs. The Blue Devils smothered their opponents en route to Coach K’s fifth national title.

Of course, the conference tournament championship can represent a good thing. This week can be nothing other than a very attainable goal for an elite team which decides to say, “Hey, we’re great. We know we’re great. Let’s win everything and not worry about these peripheral matters.”

Wisconsin won last year’s Big Ten Tournament. The Badgers did not falter in the NCAA tournament. They came within an eyelash of winning the whole thing against Duke. Winning the league tournament did not get in the way of their NCAA tournament performances or aspirations.

Kentucky and Florida battled in a fierce 2014 SEC Tournament final. The Gators won and completed the SEC's first 21-0 season. Kentucky, though, advanced one round beyond Florida in the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky and Florida battled in a fierce 2014 SEC Tournament final. The Gators won and completed the SEC’s first 21-0 season. Kentucky, though, advanced one round beyond Florida in the NCAA tournament.

In 2014, Florida completed the SEC’s first 21-0 season (including the conference tournament) by winning the SEC tourney following an 18-0 regular season. The Gators didn’t win it all, but they did make the Final Four. Having that 21-0 feat to their credit (Kentucky matched it the following season) gave the Gators a special place in history. They’d have traded in that 21-0 record if they hadn’t made the Final Four that season, but by making the Final Four, their “regular season-tournament double” in the SEC takes on added stature.

Then consider SMU in The American last year. The Mustangs were quite arguably shafted out of an at-large bid in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Their program had been dormant for a long time. Having won the regular season AAC title, getting the double with a tournament title was something to aspire to. That was worth winning for SMU, making a name for itself and garnering extra (positive) publicity.

There was a downside to that win: The AAC foolishly played its title game on Sunday afternoon (all tournaments should end on Saturday, really), and the Selection Committee slotted the Mustangs into a Thursday afternoon round-of-64 game against UCLA. The turnaround was a short one. SMU was sluggish for most of the day, and even though it rallied late, its level of performance generally suffered because of the short turnaround. SMU might have won its round-of-64 game had it not won the conference tournament, but SMU surely expected to be thrown into a Friday-Sunday pod, not a Thursday-Saturday one. That was a rough break, but winning the AAC Tournament was a big moment for the program.

Let’s now shift to 2016. What is the outlook for various teams in position to win their conference tournaments?

Five examples stand out, three from one conference.

Savvy observers of this picture can tell that: A) It's not Assembly Hall in Bloomington. B) Indiana is wearing home jerseys. Which means: C) Indiana is losing in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers have never won the event since it began in 1998.

Savvy observers of this picture can tell that: A) It’s not Assembly Hall in Bloomington. B) Indiana is wearing home jerseys. Which means: C) Indiana is losing in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers have never won the event since it began in 1998.

Indiana has never won a Big Ten Tournament. Therefore, a program with IU’s brand name should really want to grab one to boost its national profile. However, this team has worked extremely hard to nail down the outright regular season championship in the league. A semifinal loss would rest this team for the event that matters. Then again, that semifinal could come against Purdue. No one in Bloomington should want to lose to Purdue, ever. If Indiana makes the final on Sunday, well, might as well win it, right? It will be fascinating to watch the Hoosiers handle being the top seed at the Big Ten’s basketball bash.

Oklahoma is in a situation similar to Indiana’s. The Sooners have not won the Big 12 Tournament since 2003. This is a team capable of winning the event, so why shouldn’t Lon Kruger’s crew go for the brass ring? Moreover, OU is playing for a No. 1 seed, which could contain great value if a good draw accompanies it.

Here’s another plot complication: OU could get a 1 seed merely by making the Big 12 final. Again, if you reach the final in a tournament, well, there’s no longer any point in losing early so that you’re fresher for the NCAA tournament. If in a final, win — that much is undebatable about this week. (The consequences of not winning, however, will vary for each school in each situation.)

Yet, with all that having been said, OU could use some rest. This team does not have a deep bench. It often (though not always) relies too much on one or two guys to score — always Buddy Hield, sometimes Isaiah Cousins, occasionally an unexpected second cog. If OU lost in the semis to West Virginia and got a 2 seed out West with North Carolina, the Sooners would say their week worked out just fine.

Now, to the ACC for a three-pack:

North Carolina beat Virginia in last year's ACC semifinals, but neither team got past the Sweet 16.

North Carolina beat Virginia in last year’s ACC semifinals, but neither team got past the Sweet 16.

Virginia and North Carolina are playing for a No. 1 seed. The ACC Tournament is college basketball’s most prestigious conference tournament, without question. The event now ends on Saturday, offering more rest before the NCAAs. Winning the ACC tourney seems to be in each school’s best interests… because it is.

Probably.

This isn’t a likelihood, but it’s a possibility: Winning the ACC tournament could put UVA or UNC in the South Region, where Michigan State or Xavier could be a 2 seed. Xavier, if placed in the South, would be in nearby Louisville for the regional. Virginia or Carolina might play what amounts to a road game in the Elite Eight against the Musketeers.

Losing the ACC final to the other might give UVA or UNC a better bracket path in the West Region. Or, it could mean going to Kansas in the Midwest Region, which would be a tougher road to the Final Four.

Hmmm.

This leaves a third team for which winning the ACC should unquestionably be viewed as a great thing.

Miami won the ACC Tournament in 2013. Given the school’s lack of an extensive and celebrated basketball history, any signature achievement should be welcomed. Winning the ACC tournament — beyond giving Miami a 2 seed and a slim chance at a 1 seed if a million other things happen — would put the Hurricanes on the national radar. An accomplishment of this magnitude could only help Jim Larranaga’s recruiting efforts down the line.

What’s the value of a conference tournament title? As in so many other aspects of life, a case-by-case approach points the way to the best answers.

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.

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