Conference tournaments: The pre-March Madness madness

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Photo by Brigham Berthold

Before we know it, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament will be upon us. The first weekend of March Madness is my favorite weekend in all of sports. Flipping back and forth among four channels with simultaneous close games watching for buzzer beaters and bracket busters is as fun as sports get. Before all of that, though, the field of 68 teams has to be determined, and therein lies the appetizer that’s just around the corner: conference tournaments.

For most Division I teams, the road to the NCAA Tournament has only one route and that’s through the conference tournament. Under the current format, 32 of the 68 tournament spots are taken by automatic bids given to teams which win their conferences. Of the remaining 36 spots, most are given to the top teams from the power conferences. For schools like UVU, a conference title is the only way.

That’s what makes conference tournaments so entertaining, though. As soon as the event starts, regular season records are irrelevant. Having a lower seed makes the road more challenging, but not impossible. It’s on this tantalizing possibility that UVU will set its sights this year. The Wolverines will enter the WAC Tournament as no higher than the No. 5 seed, but a closer look at their season instills some confidence in their ability to make a run.

Of their first eight WAC losses this season, the Wolverines held a second-half lead in six games. The team’s inability to execute down the stretch in close games has hurt them this season, but the evidence is there that UVU at its best can run with anyone in the conference. One or two tweaks and a couple of shots finding the net is all it would take to turn those losses into wins. If that were to happen during the conference tournament, it could send UVU to the big stage.

Another one of the biggest draws for paying attention to conference tournaments –  even apart from UVU’s –  is the fact that these tournaments are a sprint, not a marathon. Some of the winning teams go through a gauntlet of playing up to five games on consecutive days; this makes the performances of the players fighting through fatigue that much more memorable. During current Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker’s last collegiate season playing for the University of Connecticut in 2011, he and his teammates blazed through the Big East Conference Tournament despite entering with the No. 9 seed. The Huskies got five wins on five consecutive days and their last three wins came by margins of two, five and three points. Walker hit so many big shots through the week that he was given the moniker ‘Cardiac Kemba.’

Conference tournament week is always a great way to get your heart pumping in preparation for the NCAA Tournament, not to mention it’s the best way to get to know some of the teams that will be going head-to-head when you’re filling out your March Madness bracket.