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Klaus: NCAA regular season should matter more

| Friday, March 3, 2017

Earlier this week, college basketball fans collectively turned their calendars in earnest to the long-anticipated month of March — the beginning of 2017’s installment of “March Madness.”

On Tuesday, college basketball offered immediate returns to those fans willing to pour their furor into day one of the madness.

Northwestern, notorious for being the only Power-5 conference school to have never appeared in the NCAA tournament, all but secured an at-large bid to the tournament by virtue of an 88-foot Tom Brady-esque pass from senior forward Nathan Taphorn that led to a buzzer-beating basket to top Michigan, 67-65. And that was just the first day. As the final regular season games are played this weekend, conference tournaments — the natural bridge between the regular season and the eventual NCAA tournament — have already begun in some mid-major conferences.

Of course, the conference tournaments for even the most seemingly nugatory conferences have ramifications regarding the makeup of the NCAA tournament. Since the Ivy League — the last league to previously offer its automatic bid to its regular season champion — finally succumbed and agreed to award an automatic bid to its conference tournament winner, all conferences now have a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, irrespective of regular-season standings.

Therefore, before all the excitement and eccentricity of these undeniably significant conference tournaments commences, it is imperative that college basketball fans take a brief, but necessary, moment to note the inherent malfeasance that is conference tournaments with automatic-bid ramifications in conferences that will ultimately only send one team to the NCAA tournament.

Every year, there are multiple teams with impressive regular-season records that get upset during their conference tournaments and end up watching the NCAA tournament at home. Regular-season conference champions are assured a bid in the supplementary NIT tournament, but — as Northwestern fans will finally be to attest to next Sunday — the elation of a NCAA Tournament berth is eons ahead of whatever utility an NIT appearance garners.

Obviously, it makes sense that the automatic-berth system involving conference tournaments is now ubiquitous across college basketball. High-stakes basketball with intrinsic meaning due to the NCAA tournament draws fans to watch games from mid-major conferences that they would otherwise brush aside. Of course, there is also the explicit potential for monetary gain driving the format due to viewer demand that would otherwise be nonexistent if the games weren’t quite as meaningful.

To be clear, the motive of this piece is not to solely condemn a system that clearly generates excitement for games that would otherwise go unnoticed and draws attention to conferences that have been ignored throughout the regular season. However, the purpose of this piece is to encourage fans to take an annual moment to offer deserved recognition to the many mid-major, regular-season champions whose efforts are given mere crocodilian concern by the structure of postseason conference tournaments.

So, to the Vermont Catamounts, who have put together a perfect 16-0 season in America East Conference play and have not lost since falling to Butler in late December, I offer my congratulations.

To the Monmouths, Akrons, Bucknells, Mount Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessees of the world: Your achievements have not completely fallen on deaf ears.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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