Have you filled out a bracket? Crumple it up and throw it away. Still filling one out? Put the pen down and back away slowly.
A champion has already been chosen.
Alright, that might be a bit premature, but the University of Connecticut Huskies won the Big East conference tournament title. And to me (and others), winning this conference in the way they did is just as impressive, if not more so, than getting the confetti shower and “One Shining Moment” in Houston.
How can I justify a singular conference title besting the (arguably) most exciting sports event there is?
Simple. Five games in five days against some of the toughest competition out there.
Connecticut, ranked No. 19 for the week of March 7 in the ESPN/USA Today national poll, was the ninth seed in the Big East tournament. Talk about a stacked conference when a team ranked nationally in the top 20 is the nine seed in conference.
On the first day of the tournament, UConn beat up on last-place DePaul University, as expected. That was only Tuesday.
Wednesday, Connecticut played eight seed Georgetown University, ranked No. 22 in the ESPN poll. Another win for the Huskies gives them multiple wins in the conference tournament for the first time in years. Georgetown also had a bye on Tuesday, so fresh legs couldn’t stop the Huskies.
On Thursday, Connecticut faced the regular-season conference champion, the University of Pittsburgh. Coming into the game, Pitt is considered a lock for a number-one seed in the NCAA tournament and is ranked No. 3 nationally. Connecticut wins on a buzzer-beating, ankle-breaking step-back jumper by Kemba Walker.
Three games in three days. Two games against ranked opponents to go for the title.
Friday, UConn played No.11 and fourth seed Syracuse University. A close overtime win put the Huskies in the conference final to play three seed and No. 14 Louisville University on their fifth straight day of play.
The Big East is stacked, no questions asked. How can you question the toughness of a conference where 11 of 16 teams get NCAA tournament bids and make up almost 20 percent of the national tournament field?
But what Connecticut did is something athletes are rarely asked to do. Professional athletes (except baseball field players) who get paid (exorbitant) salaries don’t play five straight days without a break. The athletes who played five straight days are students. So on top of keeping their focus on the game, they likely have to study for mid-terms or finals.
There is a school of thought among basketball coaches, analysts and fans that some coaches hope for their teams to lose early in conference tournaments to get rest before the NCAA tournament. After watching Kemba Walker in the game against Louisville, the thought makes some sense. Walker was so tired after the game; he looked like he would have preferred a pillow and a bed to the championship trophy.
Conference tournaments do serve a purpose. They allow for national exposure for smaller conferences that usually don’t get it and they let fans see some of the best teams in the country compete at a high level for five days straight. They also allow the conference to generate some revenue.
But at what cost?
If a team knows it will be going to the NCAA tournament, why risk injury to play for another trophy? One of the only benefits I see is potentially moving up in the seeding. That didn’t work out so well for Connecticut though. If they make it to the Sweet 16, they have to fly across the country to California for the games.
If the Huskies hadn’t made it to the conference final, would they have gotten a better location for their games, even if it meant a lower seed? No one really knows the answer to that question, but one thing is for sure: for Kemba Walker and company, sleep may have to wait until April.