King's Court: It's all about March
Jason King [ARCHIVE]
February 27, 2013
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The Kansas basketball squad is three wins away from winning its ninth straight league title -- a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a major conference program since the days of UCLA and John Wooden.

Still, if the Jayhawks end up hoisting the Big 12 trophy, coach Bill Self won't expect the accomplishment to generate much buzz in Lawrence.

"A few fans might buy T-shirts," Self said. "But that'd be about it. Winning a conference title means you had a good year. But to make it special, you've got to do well in March."

Self paused. "At least in some people's minds," he said.

The next 10 days will feature some of the most compelling races for conference championships that we've seen in years.

Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State are battling it out the Big Ten. Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville are positioned near the top of the Big East. Kansas and Kansas State are tied for the Big 12 lead and the Pac-12 is wide open.

But does anyone care?

More and more these days, a season is judged on where a team finishes in the NCAA tournament -- not on how it fared in the conference standings.

Two seasons ago, Kansas went 35-3 and won the Big 12 title. But those Jayhawks are still hissed for losing to VCU in the 2011 Elite Eight.

Last season, Washington failed to get an NCAA bid despite winning the Pac-12's regular-season title.

At Wichita State, the Shockers won the MVC championship for only the second time in 24 years, but coach Gregg Marshall felt like the achievement was undervalued after the Shockers lost to VCU in the first game of the tournament.

"We got a bad draw against a good opponent and didn't play particularly well," Marshall said. "Even then, we still had a one-possession game at the end against a VCU team that probably should've beat Indiana in the next round and gone to the Sweet 16.

"We got back [to Wichita] and everyone was 'Ohhhhhhhh.' They were so disappointed. I was like, 'Man, I thought we had a great season.'"

That's what makes the NCAA tournament both beautiful and maddening. It can turn 35-win campaigns into failures and crown champions who, for most of the season, appeared deeply flawed. It's the ultimate equalizer.

That's great for a team such as the 2011 Connecticut Huskies, who won the national championship despite finishing in a tie for ninth place in the Big East. But it has to be frustrating for coaches such as Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, whose Panthers won the Big East title the same season with a 15-3 record. That Pittsburgh team will be remembered more for losing to Butler in the Round of 32.

"You could be ranked in the top 10 in the country the whole year," Purdue's Matt Painter said, "but if you lose in the first or second round, people look at you like you're a failure.

"You're not a failure. You're playing on a neutral court, you're playing another really quality team. There are a lot of things that can change the game: where you're playing, who the officials are, who's hurt, who's sick. You get knocked off, and that's how your season is judged.

"Whether it's fair or not, it's reality."

That's why coaches such as Painter -- who won a Big Ten title in 2010 but was knocked out in the Sweet 16 after losing star Robbie Hummel to an injury -- wish there was more of an appreciation for squads that win conference championships

The best team doesn't always end up with the national title. But the best team always emerges as the champion of its conference.

"I've always put a lot of stock in conference championships," Self said. "If you don't make sure it's important to your players, how would you keep them motivated all year long?

"I tell them, 'Why would you want to make a big deal about winning a national championship when you're not even the best team in your league?'"

Self's emphasis on the importance of league titles is evident on his résumé. Dating back to 1998-99, Self's teams at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas have finished first in their respective conference in 12 of 14 seasons. The other two years they finished second.

Gonzaga's Mark Few also posted a tough-to-fathom streak. From 2001-11, Few led the Bulldogs to 11 straight West Coast Conference crowns. The record for consecutive league championships is 13 by UCLA from 1967-79. The first nine of those titles came under Wooden.

"I don't think people understand how difficult it is," Few said. "It's an eight, nine, 10-week journey. Your conference opponents know you better than anybody, so they're always prepared. You have to have sustained excellence over a two- or three-month period.

"The NCAA tournament is a quick deal."

Few said Gonzaga's 11 straight first-place finishes in the WCC didn't generate much buzz until last season, when the Zags finished second behind Saint Mary's.

"It was kind of funny," Few said. "When we finished second last year, [it] was a big deal. Everyone wanted to talk about us getting knocked off. It was mentioned in pretty much everything that was written about us.

"Our fans and everyone around the program got a dose of reality."

Conference championships certainly have greater value at some schools and in certain situations.

Self said more than 3,000 Illinois fans were waiting to greet players when the team bus arrived in Champaign after the Illini won the 2001 Big Ten title, which was only the school's second league crown in 17 seasons. You can bet marketing-savvy Kansas State will put out a commemorative video if the Wildcats catapult ahead of KU and win their first conference crown since 1977. In smaller, one-bid conferences, a first-place finish is usually celebrated more, simply because those schools know they have little chance of a significant run in the NCAA tournament.

On a national level, though, the importance of league titles continues to dwindle. Coaches think they know why.

Painter said the popularity of the NCAA tournament has lured in scores of "casual" fans. Most don't follow college basketball closely until March and most don't have sports backgrounds. The tournament, Painter said, becomes a "social event," with everyone suddenly becoming an expert after filling out a bracket.

"It's great for the tournament," Painter said. "But from a fan's standpoint, there is a pool of people [who] don't understand the game. They don't understand all that goes into winning and losing and the things that can happen. They just react to how you finish and they judge you on that."

Few said the marketing of the tournament and the constant "who's in, who's out?" discussions make it difficult for fans to focus on anything but March Madness.

"You guys [ESPN] are doing bubble watches and bracketology in November," Few said. "It's crazy,...
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