By: Jack Henkels
Maybe you’re already on spring break. Or, maybe you’re like me and not on spring break. Or, maybe you’re even more like me and actually skipping your classes on the back-end of this week so you can get a jump-start on Tournament Week.
If you’re a college basketball fan, you like Tournament Week. It’s cool. I mean, it’s a lot of games in a really short period of time with a fair amount of teams battling for their bubble lives. That’s pretty cool, right? But, if you’re like almost every college basketball fan, you far prefer the actual big dance over Tournament Week.
If I were to ask you “Hey Jim,” (Jim is the name of the average college basketball fan) “If you could only have one, which one would you choose? The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament or Conference Tournament Week?”
Jim would almost undoubtedly reply, “The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Jack. God you look great today, man. Is that a new jacket?”
To which I would reply to Jim, “Yes, it is a new jacket, thanks for noticing.” Then we’d go our separate ways.
Everyone LOVES the NCAA Tournament. Even non-sports fans. The Super Bowl and March Madness are the two annual sports things that even non-sports people can get behind. And I’m not knocking that. March Madness is an absolute spectacle. It’s a lifestyle for me. Since first grade, my mom has let me stay home from school to watch the Friday afternoon games on the first weekend. At little league practice, I’d steal my dad’s Blackberry from his baseball bag so I could check the March Madness scores before it was my turn to take batting practice. The NCAA Tournament, for me, has never been just a tournament, but rather a lifestyle. A right of passage, one might say.
So, the rest of this piece is NOT in any way, shape, or form taking away from any of the accolades that March Madness deserves. The Madness is magical, and should be treated as such. But, one week every year falls through the cracks and never really gets the appreciation and attention it rightfully deserves.
I present to you, Conference Tournament Week. It really starts today. We got a little taste of it last week with some of the smaller conferences kicking off and culminating over the weekend, but for the most part, the smaller conferences finish up early this week, and the big guns wait until the weekend.
There are no brackets and pools and staggered games across all four CBS networks. There’s no one skipping work or school and hitting the bars early on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. There’s no flash and very little marketing. It’s good ol’ fashioned conference foes, hashing it out for either a better seeding in the Big Dance, or a ticket to the event altogether. It’s really college basketball in its purest form.
I’m going to take you down conference tournament memory lane.
Championship Week gave us “Cardiac Kemba” in 2011. Obviously, this was back in the days of the old Big East. It was 8th grade and I ran home from school and into my living room, and plopped myself on the couch to watch the second half. I had baseball practice later that afternoon, but decided to put everything else on hold to see if Kemba could oust Pitt. Sure enough, Kemba hit the most iconic shot of our generation. Unbeknownst to me or anyone at the time, this shot jump started what would be a one-month run for the Huskies that would culminate in a National Championship. I truly believe this is the most iconic shot in NCAA history.
Off the top of my head, Championship Week provided us with the 6 overtime extravaganza in 2009. Yeah, my dad was there. Yeah, he also left early. No, I will never forgive him for that.
In the 2010 Big Ten quarters, Evan Turner decided not to suck for a few seconds and instead buried a contested 35-footer to fend off Michigan’s upset threat. Again, one of the most iconic and important moments in the Michigan/Ohio State Rivalry.
Last year, Kentucky and Texas A&M treated us to an instant Sunday-Afternoon classic in the SEC Championship game. Tyler Ulis and company managed to hold off Danuel House and the Aggies in overtime to boost their tournament resume.
Also last year, Isaiah Whitehead went full-Allen Iverson and unseated overwhelming Big East favorite Villanova in the Big East Championship game. I watched that one on my phone on the train. I can’t remember why I was on a train, but I remember being really concerned that I was totally killing my phone battery, but I needed to watch Whitehead.
I could go on and on about my personal cathartic experiences with Championship Week, but I’ll stop here.
The thing about Conference Championship Week is that these moments are never nearly as romanticized as NCAA Tournament moments. Thousands of powerful plays and moments are lost in the annals of basketball history because the memories we hold from this week are immediately unseated by seemingly better NCAA tournament memories a week later. Each Conference Tournament memory has a lifespan of no longer than a week and a half. No one really cares that Seton Hall beat Nova in the Big East Final last year. Villanova went on to win it all, while Seton Hall was upset by Gonzaga in the first round. These Conference Tournaments are not always indicative of what will happen in the Big Dance.
But, at the end of the day, college basketball is all about rivalries and atmosphere. This week is the only week of the year where the entire conference is in one building playing a single elimination tournament to decide its champion. That’s the epitome of college hoops. I’ll watch a Duke/UNC ACC Championship game any day of the week over a Kansas/Michigan State elite 8 matchup. But, when push comes to shove, we remember that elite 8 matchup over the beauty of a UNC/Duke ACC Title Game. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
But, I do urge you this year to put these memories of Championship Week in a separate compartment of your brain and cherish them forever. Don’t let the Big Dance distract you from the individual greatness of Conference Tournament Week.