Save for the improbable and rare runs from teams like 2008 Georgia, Championship Week hits its viewing pinnacle in the small conference tournaments dotting the college basketball landscape—the Harvards and the Belmonts.
Saturday afternoon saw three NCAA bids handed out—all to mid-major conference teams (Harvard, Belmont, Florida Gulf Coast), one in buzzer-beating fashion. Two more teams captured bids on Sunday. These are all teams that live and die by their conference tourney's automatic bids; “win or go home” mentality on full display. With the exception of a few talented major-conference bubble teams looking to secure a ticket to the Dance—Kentucky and Baylor, two Elite Eight teams in 2012, come to mind—there’s little excitement behind the likes of Miami, Indiana or Kansas making a break for their respective tourney titles. The only highlight of such runs is the exhilaration and disappointment felt by outside parties, the games themselves carrying less dramatic value for those in attendance than those watching on a TV somewhere in Spokane or Charlottesville.
So let’s focus on the little guys for once: Tommy Amaker is doing one hell of a job with Harvard, a program that, until last season, had not seen its One Shining Moment since 1946, and is now leading the Crimson back to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year. Harvard won the Ivy League—the only conference to (appropriately) award its automatic bid to the regular season champion—outright by taking down Cornell Saturday night and then looking on as Brown took out Princeton.
Not every Championship Week moment comes in the peaks and valleys of tournament play, although Belmont fans will likely disagree. The Bruins captured their sixth Atlantic Sun title by knocking off conference power Murray State (yes, Isaiah Canaan’s Murray State) with a game-ending, auto-bid-securing buzzer beater by guard Kerron Johnson in overtime. With its balance on both ends of the court and two high-scoring guards (Johnson, Ian Clark), Belmont will again be a tournament team worthy of an upset after falling as a 14-seed last March. Though it came in less spectacular fashion, Florida Gulf Coast’s bid didn’t exactly come in boring fashion—it’s the first trip to the tourney in the school’s second season of eligibility.
It may not be one of these schools that ruin your soon-to-be-disaster of a bracket, but in a college basketball world without a dominant team, think carefully before putting too much money on the line this month. It’s shaping up to be an unpredictable ride.
If forced to answer on the spot, John Thompson III would likely be my National Coach of the Year selection. That’s not meant to disregard the accomplishments of Buzz Williams (Marquette), Jim Larranaga (Miami) or Bruce Weber (Kansas State), but the job JT3 is pulling off with his given roster is quite remarkable.
Yes, Otto Porter Jr. is the best player in the Big East. But, every year, college basketball produces teams built on the talents of one or two players, and very rarely are such teams as successful as the Hoyas have been this season. Georgetown captured the final “Big East As We Know It” title by drubbing Jim Boeheim’s talented Syracuse squad 61-39, effectively beating the living hell out of the soon-to-be-ACC Orange. It was a fitting completion to the conference’s memorable run: JT3’s father won the first Big East title; his son won the last. The Big East will live on after numerous departures effective July 1, but it will be, by a number of standards, a different league. All told, though, Georgetown will remain a standard-bearer of the “new” conference. And there will still be no love lost for the exiting Syracuse.
“Right now, this one feels nicer than any of the rest of them. It’s special because the Big East, as we know it, is ending,” the Hoyas’ head coach said. “Georgetown won the first one, and now Georgetown’s won the last.”
And as the godfather of Georgetown hoops, John Thompson Sr., piped in from his seat in the stands: “And kiss Syracuse goodbye.”
Keep in mind: This is a Georgetown team that lost Greg Whittington, its second-leading scorer and rebounder, for academic reasons earlier this year, and has only gotten better. The Hoyas’ defense is nasty. The offense, while not explosive, manages to get by (at least by collegiate standards). JT3 deserves plenty of credit for guiding his team to the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament and a shot at a Final Four run.
“Nicer than any of the rest of them,” just about says it all.