Monday, March 9, 2009

Take it Easy

There’s a dirty, little secret about the Big East Tournament: to the winner go the spoiled national championship hopes. Because holding up the golden ore this Saturday night all but assures that you won’t be cutting down the nets the first Monday of April.
Which is completely antithetical to the common perception. The tournament, hosted annually at Madison Square Garden, is arguably the most prestigious and consistently memorable in college basketball history. Every March, for a week, it brings back salience to college basketball in New York. 12 teams - and for the first time ever this year: 16 teams - vie to hold up the trophy in front of a sold-out MSG crowd.
But should they? Because for all its glitz and glamour, winning the tournament may just kill all hopes of winning the Tournament that really counts a few weeks later.
In fact the trophy probably should come with the words “caveat emptor” tattooed on it somewhere.
Of 29 prior champions since the tournament’s inception in 1980, only three winners have gone on to win it all. And the ratio has gotten smaller the last five years. Of the last ten teams to play in the championship game, only two have made it as far as the Final Four and just Connecticut won the whole thing in 2004. Not a pretty tale for a conference consistently thought of as the best in the country.
The lucky 2008 winner Pittsburgh didn’t even make it to the second weekend, getting bounced in the second round by Michigan State. Runner-up Georgetown was the first Goliath that the eponymous Davidson slayed that year, losing in the second round as a two-seed. 2007 champion Georgetown lost in the Final Four to Ohio State. Pitt made it to the sweet 16.
Three years ago was particularly ugly. In 2006, champion Syracuse needed buzzer beaters from Gerry McNamara in its first three games to even get to Saturday night, before beating Pittsburgh. Then once it got to the Big Dance, it was first round upset victim, and a lot of people’s bracket buster. Pitt was only a smidge better, losing to 13 seed Bradley in the second round. But in fairness, this may be as much an indictment of Pitt’s inability to come up large in March.
In 2005, champ Syracuse got dumped as a four-seed in the first round. And while UConn won it all in 2004, second-place Pitt only made it to the Sweet 16.
So why the long history of short NCAA Tournament runs? Some say it’s because the grueling toll of playing three straight days, or in some cases four day, or potentially five days this year, is too much to take. Teams run out of gas and it shows the next weekend. And there may be some rationality to that.
Take Louisville for example. In 2007 the Cards got to the semi-finals at the Garden. Then promptly got bounced in the second round the next weekend. Last year Rick Pitino’s squad couldn’t make it past their first game and proceeded to make it to the Elite Eight.
So a word from the wise to the teams about to hit the floor at MSG: take it easy. Rest up. Conserve your energy. Reserve some time to see the sights. But whatever you do, don’t win too many games; it’s probably to your benefit.

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