One of the main stories of this college basketball season followed the effects of nationwide conference realignment. Syracuse and Pittsburgh, former household names of the Big East, immediately made a splash in the ACC. The new Big East saw Providence and Creighton play for the championship, a matchup no one would have even fathomed a decade ago. The Big Ten included 12 teams, while the Big 12 fielded (you guessed it) ten. Most fans didn’t realize who exactly was in the “American Athletic” Conference, since many probably thought AAC was a just a typo. But Louisville won the ACC, I mean AAC, giving Coach Pitino three different conference tournament championships in the past ten years. With these new conferences came new matchups. Teams used to facing the same opponents every year suddenly faced off against new conference foes. Players adjusted to different styles of play; coaches scouted different teams. Fans wondered how these decisions would affect the landscape of college basketball. We all did. If rivalries take time to develop, how would these radical changes affect the history and tradition so important in college basketball? Business decisions are made in offices, but on the court, we just wanted to see the same level of competition and pride. If it was so easy to part with tradition, why did any of it matter?
Championship week reminded us. For one week, every team is playing for something. Some are capping off a successful regular season; others are just trying to extend theirs. There are NCAA tournament spots at stake, and teams that already qualified are gunning for a higher seed. Conference championships are about bragging rights, about banners and trophies, about pride. Not every team (realistically) hopes to win a national championship, but for a few days in early March, everyone in the conference tries to be the last team standing. Conference championships bring out the best in a lot of teams. The familiarity of ones opponent leads to extra preparation, and the scheduling of games on consecutive days is as much a mental test as a physical one. Players take pride in leading their teams to conference championships, and close games become instant classics.
This year was no exception, already giving us memorable moments. Seton Hall’s last second victory over Villanova. A would-be game-winning layup by Illinois falling just inches short against Michigan. Kentucky losing the ball on the last possession trailing by 1 in the SEC final against top-ranked Florida. Russ Smith leading Louisville once again to a conference championship. With every championship, another road to the NCAA tournament was completed, another dream extended. You only need to hear the words of celebration and praise from victorious coaches to convince you that these games matter; they matter a lot. Teams change, players change, conferences change, but the importance of winning does not. During this week, we see the real beginning of March Madness. We can quantify the size of a school, the money invested in a program, and the number of wins in a season. But once the tournaments begin, everyone is suddenly 0-0. Every team just wants to be on the last line of the bracket, and that’s when see what is great about sports. Pride. Heart. Determination. Competition. Victory. We wonder how decisions made in the background will affect the landscape of sports. But we needn’t have worried. When they step on the court, players just want to win. Just give them something to play for. AN