Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mid-Majors Can't Win National Championships

When Kansas won the NCAA national championship Monday night, I was celebrating 38K feet above ground. Work had sent me west, to San Francisco, for the annual RSA IT security conference. My flight conveniently took off three hours before the championship and landed about an hour after it finished.

I was happy Kansas won. I told my old roommate Blake earlier this year that there is no way a mid-major conference team can ever win an NCAA championship. Maybe it was a visceral comment, but I felt strongly all year that Memphis was overrated. Whenever a team has to go around saying they are ready for the tournament because they played nine non-conference games against other teams that made the tournament, you know there's a problem (Hint: None of Memphis' fellow Conference USA teams made the field of 65).

Memphis' biggest game of the year was against Tennessee, and they lost. Tennessee, in my opinion, was also overrated, because its conference, the SEC, had a down year. So the alleged best team in the country played one good team all year-- a team that was also overrated-- and that team won.

My NCAA bracket reflected my distaste for mid-majors. I had Memphis losing to Michigan State in the round of 16. I had Tennessee losing relatively early too (I was right there).

Why am I down on the mid-major conferences? The NCAA basketball season is long, unlike its sister football season, and the NCAA playoffs are long as well (also contrary to the football season). The point of a long season is to prepare a team for the post-season. Playing in a major conference, against opponents that are national caliber, day in and day out, prepares a team for the big dance.

Being a UCONN fan, I naturally favor the Big East. But I certainly respect many other conferences (even though I hope their teams lose to Big East foes). The ACC. The Big 10. The SEC (even though this was a weak year for that conference). And last but certainly not least-- the Big 12.

The Big 12 has had it rough for a long time. It's tough to find their games on national TV (thank you ESPN for being an exception). The conference tends to represent midwest schools that favor the pigskin over the three-point stripe. There's only one problem: Big 12 basketball is really fun to watch. The teams are well-matched and very talented. The style reminds me a lot of the Big East, and so I like watching Big 12 games.

I have also always favored Big 12 teams heavily in the NCAA tournament. And it's usually cost me. I had Texas winning the national championship last year-- that didn't work out. Before Kansas' victory Monday, the Big 12 had only won a single national championship in the last like 50 years.

So why did Memphis lose on Monday? Fittingly, it's because the team broke down in the final moments of regulation. Missed free throws. Not fouling when Kansas needed a three to tie (by fouling, they could only get two free throws). These are the types of mistakes made when you win every regular season game by 50. These are the types of mistakes you make when you don't play national caliber teams every night. These are the types of mistakes made by a mid-major conference team.

When Chalmers hit the three for Kansas to tie the game with less than five seconds remaining in regulation-- sending the game to overtime where everyone knew Kansas had the momentum-- I nearly jumped out of my United Airlines seat. My friendly pilot had placed the Westwood One broadcast of the game on the inflight radio system. I could even hear the pilot changing channels as we cruised out of range of a certain frequency. I certainly would have rather watched at home in front of my HD screen, but since the color commentators were Billy Rafferty and John Thompson (the dad), it wasn't all that bad.

I imagined that we were over the state of Kansas when the final horn sounded, and the Jayhawks captured the crown for the Big 12 and major conferences everywhere. I am sure bedlam reigned in Lawrence (as Brent Musburger would have said). And the Kansas faithful should know that high above them, in a Boeing jet sailing west, this major-conference fan was indeed smiling.

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