NCAA BK

HILL: Pac-10 Tournament more than a fund-raiser

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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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Today's philosophy reminder can be blamed on master thespian Donovan McNabb. And here it is: More is good. Today's rebuttal can be blamed on me: Sometimes more isn't good. Donovan was referring to the beef-to-broth differential in canned soup. I'm referring to basketball. And that leaves me in spiritual turmoil. To me, basketball is a religion, which probably qualifies as one of its three wise men. (Editor's note: Frank suggests you jump on Bethlehem for your office pool.) To approximate my inner-conflict ratio, let's revisit the dilemma of Bison Dele, who was choosing between NBA millions and operating a water-treatment facility in Beirut. Tough call for both of us. Anyway, what has provoked my basketball betrayal? I call it The Medium Dance. The Big Dance, of course, is the NCAA men's basketball tournament, primary engine of March Madness. But that's next week. This week has been reserved for conference tournaments, which serve as possible mojo resurrection for mediocre teams. The theory has a simple application — thanks to a feisty conference tournament run, a bad season can evolve into a festival of hugs. Despite the bitter competition and full-tilt excitement, I've always considered conference tournaments to be as superfluous as a dress rehearsal for a bachelor party. Superfluous, but damn fun. Obviously, an even larger motivation for these events is cash; bonus conference collisions greatly contribute to the gross national championship product. So, with this altruistic capacity (loot, second chances) on their resumes, why have I opposed them? Well, as crowed every March by many other media cynics, a conference tournament uprising by a bad team usually has harsh tournament consequences for teams that excelled during the regular season. For example, Tennessee Tech cruised through the Ohio Valley Conference with 15 victories in 16 games this season. But it slipped in the OVC Tournament and — according to Ratings Percentage Index watchdogs — could be doomed on Selection Sunday. Butler checks in at 25-5, including a 12-4 record in Horizon Conference skirmishes. But the Bulldogs were ambushed by eighth-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay in the conference fund-raiser and have been placed on NCAA Tournament life support. Siena knocked off Niagara in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game and will roar into The Big Dance at 16-18. The nation was spared when Gonzaga and bouncy Pepperdine survived challenges that would have kept them away from Monday's date in the West Coast Conference final. As nationwide heavyweights, the Zags had to withstand Sunday's semifinal charge from the University of San Diego in a building sponsored by Jenny Craig. So, while postseason conference feuds are conjured inside a common revival tent, the value of their regular season is compromised. That has been an easy crusade to support. Until now. My conflict has a name ¿ the Pacific-10 Conference Tournament. As a longtime Southern California sports hack, I haven't had to contemplate the impact of a Pac-10 tournament. OK, they tried one in 1987 and the concept was pronounced dead after the 1990 episode. It didn't exactly capture the lightning manufactured every March by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Armageddon of conference tournaments. As interpreted by the Pac-10, this event was the most disappointing search for victory since McDonald's thought segregating beef from lettuce and tomato would be a fast food bonanza. But this week's second coming of the Pac-10 tournament occurs when the league is competitively berserk. From 1-6, the league has more competitive balance than teenagers at a sobriety checkpoint. The first-round matchups are tasty and the storylines are compelling. First under most microscopes are the UCLA Bruins and coach Steve Lavin. The caterwauling has become a tradition. It has been ratcheted up a couple of levels this season, because many basketball forecasters saw the Bruins swaggering into this season as national championship contenders. But that wasn't a swagger; some of the Bruins just have a difficult time moving as quickly as their predecessors. Lavin? All he does is furnish Los Angeles with more second-guessing than Stoner Day at the SAT. The Bruins open with roller-coaster Cal, a sister school whose case for UC supremacy includes the boast that its pep band turns out a snappier rendition of that co-opted fight song. This tournament also features two of the nation's most exciting players. If it looks like an NBA prospect and plays like an NBA prospect, it must be a Duck. A Duck named Frederick Jones. His teammate, sophomore point guard Luke Ridnour, plays like what might have occurred if Jason "White Chocolate" Williams hadn't been hypnotized into believing he's bad boy rap artist Eminem. Oregon, which won the conference's regular-season title, will open against eighth-seeded Washington. Arizona and Arizona State are required to take their rivalry outside this week ¿ outside the state. Coached by Lute Olson, no fan of conference tournaments, the Wildcats won a national title in 1997 and reached the championship game last season ¿ without the mettle-peddling league war enjoyed by everyone else. The Sun Devils defeated the 'Cats in Tempe and knocked off UCLA in Westwood. They are seeded seventh. The top six seeds are considered locks to make The Big Dance. There will not be a seventh Pac-10 team Big Dancing. Which begs an interesting question. If ASU rallies to win the tournament (this is not an endorsement) and UCLA slips in round one, would the selection sharpies ignore Bruin victories over Kansas, Alabama, Arizona, Stanford and USC? Probably not, but this conference tournament makes it possible. Thursday's other first-round challenge offers Stanford vs. USC. The Cardinal, coached by anti-tournament enthusiast Mike Montgomery, whiffed in two games against Henry Bibby's Trojans. With my built-in bias tucked away, I will attend this potentially electric Pac-10 tournament. If it fails to live up to its billing, I may even be pleased. Is there a factor for upgrade or compromise? Sort of. It's called the "automatic bid," which may seem like a subscriber function on e-bay. An automatic bid is a tournament blessing issued to the conference champion ¿ the conference tournament champion. Of course, regular-season champs from power conferences can lose in the league tourney and still make The Big Dance. But smaller conferences don't have this cushion, a condition that creates the teeth-gnashing situations mentioned earlier. For the last several years, many well-intentioned hoop scholars have encouraged the NCAA to make the regular-season title worthy of the auto bid. However, this transition would rob many conference tournaments of their uprising essence. So why continue having them at all? Money. At least that's probably what Mr. Burlison would tell me. He must have been that wise man with the gold. Randy Hill can be reached at his e-mail address, rhill@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Stanford, Southern California, California, Arizona State, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, Tennessee Tech, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Butler, Pepperdine, Gonzaga, San Diego

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