Rational thinking would tell you that it would be better for college teams to take it easy and put their feet up for the Big Dance. History would even suggest that it would have been better to have lost this week. But when did rationality ever have anything to do with March Madness?
Villanova is a great example of a squad that just can’t help itself this time of year. Every instinct should tell it and every other school not to sweat the conference tournament because the most important games are coming up. Yet there it was, like every other team in every conference, playing as if there were no tomorrow.
The defending national champion Wildcats poured everything they had into the Big East championship, having enough left in the tank after a tense win over Seton Hall on Friday to beat Creighton, 74-60, Saturday night at the Garden. For them, it was worth every ounce of energy, every risk of injury.
“I mean, that’s where the majority of our games are. You come to play in the Big East, one of the best conferences in the country,” said Kris Jenkins, whose three-pointer at the buzzer beat North Carolina last April and set the tone with two quick three-pointers Saturday night. “That’s why we get excited. We put in a lot of hard work.”
Conference tournaments are the darnedest, most entertaining anachronisms in sports. In the power leagues, the postseason events long ago outgrew the original intent: Everybody got together in one place to play for the conference’s one automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. That is how it was when the concept began in the Atlantic Coast Conference 63 years ago, and it still is that way in the lower mid-major leagues such as the ones Hofstra and Stony Brook are in.
In the Big East, though, 70 percent of the teams that arrived this week in New York were pretty well assured of having places in March Madness. Still, they gave it all they had, as did the modern ACC teams who held their postseason soiree this week in Brooklyn. At best, they were playing for seeding with the NCAA selection committee, but who knows how much that is worth. Kansas was knocked out early in the Big 12 and still might get a No. 1 seed.
And consider this: Four of the past five NCAA champions failed to win their conference tournament (the only exception was Louisville in the old Big East four years ago). So what’s the big deal?
For starters, these events bring in tons of money for the schools and are great for recruiting. Coaches burnish their reputations.
Still, none of it works unless the players buy in and they do. All of them at every university.
“I just enjoy so much seeing my guys enjoy it because I know it’s special to them,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team won it all last year after having lost in the Big East final to Seton Hall. “I get the real good glow inside seeing these guys accomplish something.”
Villanova’s players actually were a bit subdued in their celebration Saturday night, compared to their reaction after the Big East win on the same floor two years ago.
“I think part of it was just exhaustion. We played as hard as we could for 40 minutes,” said Josh Hart, the outstanding player in the tournament each time.
True enough. Hart kept diving for loose balls, charging hard to the hoop, regardless of the potential jeopardy to another national championship run. His sweat-soaked 29 points Saturday night and his elation over scoring the winning points Friday, were evidence that conference tournaments are great theater — in some ways better than March Madness itself, with its opening rounds in distant places before small crowds.
This has been an amazing week in New York with the two conferences in town. If you didn’t go, you should do so next year, when the Big Ten joins the Big East and ACC here. Despite themselves, they all will be playing is if there were no tomorrow.