Championship week has 30 conference tournaments. Teams scramble for NCAA tournament bids. In approximately 20 of those conference tournaments the entire season comes down to the tournament. The only team that will receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, the only school that will see their name in the bracket across the country over the next week is the tournament champion. The notoriety and prestige of an NCAA tournament birth render the regular season nearly meaningless in these exclusive conferences.
Far and away the best formatted tournament isn't in the Big 10, SEC, ACC, or Big 12. It's not in the Big East or any major conference. It's in the Big Sky. They Big Sky takes only six teams into its tournament. It eliminates two teams based on the regular season. Additiionally, the winner of the conference gets to host the semifinals and finals. They get the homecourt advantage. The second place team receives a buy into the semifinals. I have now attended two of the last three Big Sky tournaments and each year I walk away knowing I have seen what midmajor college basketball is all about.
This year, Northern Arizona tied with Weber State for the Big Sky crown. Weber swept the Lumberjacks, wins the tiebreaker and is therefor the tournament host. Both teams receive a buy. In the first game, NAU scratches and claws to a seven point win over last year's NCAA Cinderella Montana.
The nightcap is March Madness at it finest. Weber State's crowd is raucous, but Portland State is determined. Like Conroy's alma mater, The Citadel, Portland State University has never been to the NCAA tournament.
A part of me is still emotionally invested with Portland State. At one point in my life I spent 6 months trying to be a part of this program. I wasn't paid, but I volunteered, hoping that somehow I could get this team to the NCAA tournament - a glorious place they are only two wins away from right now. As if that would be the fulfillment that would make my life complete. I find myself rooting for Portland State because of it. As I do, I realize that I am the only fan in the building that Portland State has. There still isn't enough interest in the program in Portland, Oregon to get any fan support for this Big Sky semifinal. It's as if somehow something that I did then would be a scintilla of the reason Portland State's name might appear in the bracket come selection Sunday.
Intensity is not a strong enough word to describe what is happening on the court. Every shot is contested. Every call is scrutinized. Both coaches have their jackets off midway through the first half. As an official myself, I wonder how any official could actually want to call this game. Ultimately, I know that this game, the last college game that the seniors on one of these teams will ever play is going to come down to one or two late calls or noncalls.
It does. With under ten seconds to go and Portland State trailing by a point, Delonte Huff who scores 20 points, comes out of the pack for Portland State with the ball. He dribbles in the open court going for the go ahead basket. Just past half court Juan Pable Silviera of Weber reaches and knocks the ball away. "I'm glad they didn't call a foul." Silviera says after the game. Weber State gets the ball in the ensuing scramble. The non call goes Weber State's way.
"If you do not think that contempt of home crowds does not file down the rough edges of a referee's psyche, then you know little of the game of basketball." Pat Conroy.
After the game Weber State coach Randy Rahe says, "The crowd was our MVP tonight."
Perhaps the regular season wasn't so meaningless after all.