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Down with “Championship Week”

March 7, 2003 Columns No Comments

Few true champs in Championship Week

by Michael Ermitage

ESPN is a marketing genius. Einsteins of their craft. The network has taken every potential angle in college basketball and turned it into an event. You have the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Bracket Buster, Rivalry Week, Judgment Week (Judgment Week?), the Selection Sunday Special and finally… Championship Week.

Championship Week is the week preceding Selection Sunday. During that period, nearly every Division-I conference crowns a “champion” via a tournament. The event is televised live via the mega-sports giant, complete with top-notch broadcasting teams and sure-fire court storming.

This hasn’t always been the case. In years past, many conferences did not
have conference tournaments, preferring to have extended conference seasons
to allow for each team to play every conference member twice. The Big Ten
is the most glaring example of a conference that cut its conference season
to accommodate a tournament. The Pac-10, another long-term tournament
holdout, added a tourney without compromising its conference schedule, but
did force teams to limit its non-conference games. The lure of conference
tournament dollars and national television exposure has coerced these two
age-old conferences to join Championship Week.

The biggest problem with Championship Week is that it has few champions.

Without full conference seasons, you have schools skating to regular-season crowns thru questionable rotating schedules. Take current Big Ten champion Wisconsin, for example. The Badgers earned their first outright Big Ten championship in 56 years with its 60-59 win against Illinois. Wisconsin, however, had arguably the easiest route to the title. Bo Ryan, coach of the Badgers and Vince McMahon look-alike, did not have to take his club to Indiana or to Michigan State. Those schools were a combined 15-1 at home in conference home games. Instead, the Badgers did travel to Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Penn State, where they picked up three wins, inexplicably losing to Penn State. In trips to other conference contenders (Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois), the Badgers were 1-3. Whether or not Wisconsin deserves the crown is not in question here; the Badgers may very well be the best team in the conference. Yet, there will always be naysayers who attribute the Badgers’ title to a quirk in scheduling. In fact, even pollsters rank Illinois, the second place Big Ten team, ahead of the Badgers. While the Badgers will receive the hardware, it will be a disputed title.

And for what? So, the Big Ten can have a big moneymaking party in Chicago. Too bad that the top seed in the Big Ten tournament has only won the tournament title once. And once the Badgers are eliminated, it’ll open the door for a second “champion” to stand on the highest pedestal.

Conference tournament apologists will point to the smaller-profile conferences – the SoCons and MEACs of the world. ESPN uses these conferences like a $10 lap dance. Instead of allowing these conferences to reward its top conference member by giving it a bid to the NCAA tournament, Championship Week forces these conferences to make these top teams win three consecutive games on a neutral floor to prove it belongs. While Butler of the Horizon league was clearly that league’s best team and regular-season champion in 2002, it was the UIC Flames that earned the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Butler was passed over as an at-large entry and UIC was ceremoniously dumped by Oklahoma in the first round. Certainly a long tournament run by the Bulldogs, who had beaten Purdue, Indiana and Washington during the season, would have been much better for the conference’s notoriety than a one-and-done appearance by UIC. But, alas, you can’t turn down the lure of Championship Week.

The pull of Championship Week and ESPN exposure is so strong that some conferences postpone their title games as much as a week just to appear on the network.

Perhaps everyone can learn something from the Ivy League. It is the only conference that does not have a conference tournament and instead rewards its automatic bid to its regular-season champion. It is nice to know that at least somewhere, big money does not always win out. It is nice to know that someone wasn’t convinced by a slick ESPN rep (perhaps Dan Patrick in an Armani suit) that money is worth more than the integrity of a real, undisputed champion and deserving NCAA representative.


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