Forget conferences, Madness about teams

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

This is a modest argument against the appropriateness of basketball-conference boasting during the NCAA basketball tournament. For pundits to have campaigned for a record 11 Big East teams in the Big Dance is all well and good, but we have reached the point -- again -- where the college championship playoffs are about teams, not leagues.

Why, exactly, were Kentucky fans -- giddy in the dying moments of their school's Sunday victory over North Carolina and their ascension to the Final Four for the first time since 1998 -- chanting, "S-E-C, S-E-C"? If Virginia Commonwealth and Butler have demonstrated anything with their delightful progress to the tournament's decisive weekend, it is that "my conference is better than your conference" crowing doesn't pay the rent in this annual madness.

By definition, sports is a provincial exercise. Loyalty to school, region and one's own tribe is logical enough. But Carolina coach Roy Williams zeroed in on the real competitive priority when asked, before the East Regional, about Marquette's possible motivation to defend the Big East's pride -- in the Big East territory of Newark -- against Williams' Atlantic Coast Conference team. (Marquette didn't defend much at all, it turned out.)

"They probably love the Big East and I love the ACC," Williams said. "But, by golly, we are playing for North Carolina and I've got a feeling their kids are doing the same thing [for Marquette].

"You have a sense of feeling about your league, but you are thinking about yourself, and there is nothing wrong with that. You are thinking of doing well because you want it for yourself, not because you are trying to do something for somebody else."

All the bloviating over which conference is strongest, or whether a conference's teams are living up to their reputations -- the woulda, coulda, shoulda quacking that never is as interesting as actual games -- again is sounding lame.

And the NCAA -- as it continues to expand its showcase event, only to give yet more so-called power conference also-rans tournament visibility, prestige (and, yes, money) -- ought to see by now that it is merely giving breaks to the least needy.

By using the RPI excuse for inviting so many Big East, Big 12, ACC and Big 10 schools every year, the NCAA selection committee ignores that the system is rigged against teams from lesser conferences in the first place.

A team from, say, the America East or Horizon or Colonial Athletic Association can only hope to boost its non-conference bonafides by scheduling regular-season matches with the power teams -- and it can only do that by playing them on the road, where it most likely will lose. Thereby hurting its non-conference record that is so carefully scrutinized by the Big Dance chaperones.

Here's a better way for filling the field, a mere tweak which would recognize the basketball legitimacy of those schools labeled "mid-major" without being unfair to teams trying to compete in the monster leagues:

Retain the automatic bids for all conference tournament champions, but provide a guaranteed tournament berth for each conference's regular-season champion -- if that is a team other than the tournament winner.

That would reward a team such as Vermont, for its successful America East regular season, as well as Boston University, which won the league tournament after Vermont was eliminated. The addition of a handful of teams, here and there, from less privileged leagues would keep some .500 teams from BCS land out. But it wouldn't eliminate the likes of UConn (9-9 in the Big East), which earned an NCAA ticket by winning the conference tournament and deserved the second chance based on its strong, late run.

If, as a result, Vermont were blown away in its first NCAA game, there would be no more harm done than when Villanova, the 10th-place Big East team, got the NCAA heave-ho in its opener.

For Final Four weekend, may the better conference not be a matter of discussion.

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