COLUMN: Hoop dreams
By Dan Gladman
Though the NCAA tournament is six days from its tip-off, March Madness begins in earnest today. The biggest conferences in U.S. college basketball hold their league tournaments huge indicators of what will happen in the coming weeks.
Each team that wins its conference tournament, with less-than-notable exceptions, receives an automatic bid to the NCAA's big dance. This gives all teams a chance to participate in the most exciting three weeks in amateur sports.
Consider the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, perennial contenders in the highly-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. The Ramblin' Wreck has had a sub-par year with a losing record, but by winning the ACC tournament, the Jackets would qualify for the NCAAs, where anything can happen. Though Georgia Tech's winning the ACC is unlikely, a weak North Carolina State team did just that in the late '80s and advanced to the NCAA's Sweet 16 with the late Jim Valvano at the helm and Chris Corchiani at point guard.
It was only two years ago that a 10-20 Florida Atlantic squad became the losingest team ever to qualify for the NCAAs after upsetting the field in its conference tourney. FAU would lose in the first round to Ed O'Bannon and the eventual champion UCLA Bruins.
A major trend in conference tournaments sees league champs often failing to win the big one and vice versa. Case in point, last year. In the consensus choice as America's top basketball league the Southeastern conference last year's tourney saw Mississippi State knock off Kentucky, who had been ranked number one in the country. Not only did the MSU Bulldogs' win catapult them to a Final Four-reaching tournament performance, but it woke up the Wildcats, who had breezed through the regular season, losing only once, and set the gears in motion for their national championship run.
Keep in mind also that last year's other two Final Four contestants planted the seeds for their NCAA run in league tourneys. Massachusetts had an easy time winning the Atlantic-10 playoffs, while Syracuse's John Wallace came into his own as MVP of the Big East tournament. His performance there infused in him the confidence that would make him an all-NCAA performer in the field of 64.
Another trend in the ACC tournament is the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. In 1992, when Duke won the NCAA, it was the Tar Heels who won the ACC. The following year, UNC took the national championship while the Blue Devils won the league tournament. This year's ACC field looks strong and well-balanced. Wake Forest was the odds-on favourite early in the year, but with Tim Duncan struggling and the Demon Deacons losing games, Wake isn't even a heavy favourite to win its own conference. Clemson and Maryland have also slumped but the old stand-bys, UNC and Duke, look strong at the end of the year as always. Virginia is always expected to pull off an upset as well.
There are two major conferences which do not hold year-end league tournaments. Ironically, these two leagues feature runaway champions this year. In the Ivy League, the Princeton Tigers were undefeated and, even without legendary coach Pete Carrill, won their regular season crown and qualified for the NCAAs. In the Big 10, the surprising Minnesota Golden Gophers finished head and shoulders above a field of heavyweights which included Michigan, Indiana and Purdue. They will be sitting back Sunday, waiting for the NCAA tournament selection committee to rank them No. 1 in the Midwest regional.
Stock up on the party supplies. This weekend is the first of four successive, glorious weekends where the best and purest basketball in the world is played.