Candid Cameron: Conference wars still the test

Candid Cameron: Conference wars still the test

Published Jan. 18, 2012 6:15 p.m. ET

Dick Vitale put something on Twitter the other night that made me want to weep.

"For the big-time elite programs," Vitale tweeted, "the only real goal is cutting down the nets at the Final Four."

Sad, but he's right.

The reason the issue even came up was in reference to KU's 92-74 thumping of Baylor – a game that demanded most hoops gurus re-think their opinions of both teams.

And of course, one of matters in question had to be how things look – just three weeks into conference play – regarding the ultimate Big 12 champion.

Undefeated Baylor had been the flavor of the month until getting pasted at Allen Fieldhouse, and suddenly pundits are scurrying to revise their opinions of the league's power structure.

That's all silly, obviously, since Kansas – the new favorite – has played just five of 18 conference games. And none on the road against any of the league's other ranked teams.

In truth, we don't know much more about the potential conference champ than we did prior to Baylor's first – and pretty much inevitable – meltdown in The Phog.

Let's see the Jayhawks take their show on the road – to Manhattan, Columbia, Ames, and certainly to Waco – before we leap to any conclusions.

Besides, as Vitale tweeted, who cares about the Big 12 winner?

Who cares about ANY conference champion?

College basketball, sadly, has become the equivalent of batting practice prior to the real deal – the NCAA tournament.

Bobby Knight and I have disagreed on a lot of things – once to the point that he stomped out of a press conference because I dared to ask about why Indiana had switched to a zone defense.

But I agree wholeheartedly with Knight and his passion for letting conference titles sort out basketball supremacy.

Knight's argument – and mine, if anyone cares – is that a 16- or 18-game schedule constitutes a true body of work.

"You can't win a major conference by accident," Knight has said, again and again. "But the Final Four? A team can get hot for six games – and lucky in a couple of those – and all of a sudden, it's a national champion.

"That's not a champion to me."


Last year might have been the most absurd example of all, as Connecticut was the ninth of 11 Big East teams invited to the big dance -- and rode the magical play of Kemba Walker to a national title.

Seriously, how can you take a champion seriously that finished NINTH in its own conference?

This might be a change of sport that will make you dizzy, but that's one of the things I like so much about European soccer.

In all the major countries, domestic league champions are settled by full schedules – home and away -- against everyone else in the top division.

The marathon lasts from August through May, and clubs must endure injuries, slumps, players summoned away for national team duty and so on.

To win, say, the Premiership in England or La Liga in Spain, you have to be the best team.


Sure, there are some important one-loss-and-gone tournaments along the way, but nothing is as important to the big clubs as winning their domestic leagues.

We don't have anything like it in America, not in any major sport – including soccer, ironically.

All the pro sports crown winners after playoffs. Regular seasons merely earn you an invitation.

College football has the ridiculous BCS, which supposedly rewards regular-season results – but we know how absurd that can be.

Alabama just won the national championship after being an also-ran in its own division of the SEC.

Back to hoops…

Almost all of the questions I've heard following the KU blowout on Monday concerned the two teams' chances in the NCAA tournament.

I can give you the easy answer – KU could be an Elite Eight team or better, Baylor probably cannot – but I wish the conversation were focused more on the Big 12.

Heck, it's tougher to beat a ranked team in their own house than it is to advance in the NCAA tournament. Kansas has won 85 of its last 86 games at home.

Would anyone want to bet that national champ Connecticut could have cut down the nets and then gone on a week later to handle the Jayhawks in Lawrence?


(OK, before you reply and ask why I'm giving KU so much more love as a March Madness participant than Baylor, the NCAA tournament is all about guards.

Big men and team depth, so critical in a long conference season, don't mean nearly as much. Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor could be this year's Kemba Walker, while Baylor so far as thrived with Perry Jones III and the rest of a very good front line.

Simple: Edge to KU in March.)

But doggone it, why aren't we saving most of our praise for conference winners?

KU's streak of seven straight won or shared Big 12 championships is amazing.

Now THAT is consistently great basketball.

Yeah, the Hawks have been knocked off in March by teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia Commonwealth – but can anyone say with a straight face that either of those teams would even CONTEND for a Big 12 title?

I love ya, Dickie V, but forget about March Madness for now.

There's plenty of time to argue about seeding and all the rest of it.

Meantime, the Big 12 race is going to be a bloodbath. Three teams could win the title – KU, Baylor or Missouri – and any of that trio might lose to K-State or Iowa State.

Missouri's ranked No. 5 in the nation, and already got waxed in Manhattan.

Conference battles are the lifeblood of college basketball, at least for cranky old purists like me.

And Knight, too.

Want to meet for a cold one and talk hoops, Bobby?