Starting in 1975, the NCAA changed its rules to allow teams that did not win their conference tournaments to still earn berths to the NCAA Tournament. At first they limited all conferences to a maximum of just two teams, but as the tournament expanded over the next decade they eliminated that rule to allow conferences to send as many teams as were qualified to the Big Dance.
The rule changes helped improve the quality of March Madness by ensuring all of the nation's best teams were included. But it de-emphasized the importance of conference tournaments, which are deep in history and tradition in their own right. No longer did teams' chances to compete for a national championship rest solely on winning their conference tournaments.
Although no sensible college coach in America would admit that conference tournaments are meaningless, it seems as if many coaches in the power conferences are secretly changing their philosophies. Some would probably rather rest up for the NCAA Tournament than play three games in as many days-risking injury and exhaustion-just to capture a league championship.
Clearly, Mike Krzyzewski doesn't subscribe to this philosophy as his Blue Devil teams have reached the championship game for nine straight years, playing their way to a No. 1 seed two years ago by winning an ACC championship.
One might wonder, though, whether this tiring run does more harm then help as teams head into the only postseason tournament that really matters.
Last year at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, there was a lot of chatter in the media room among the reporters that for some teams, losing early to gain more time to rest might be better for their long-term NCAA Tournament chances. And Roy Williams' name was heavily involved in the conversations.
Since arriving at UNC three years ago, he has posted a 2-3 record in the ACC Tournament-including a semifinal exit by his 2005 national title team-and has yet to reach the ACC championship game. Now this could clearly be a result of his team having an off day or losing to a better-prepared squad, but maybe not.
His final two Kansas squads-the 2002 and 2003 teams-failed to make the Big 12 championship game either, despite decisively winning the league's regular season title in both seasons. It's impossible to say whether Williams is deliberately tanking, but his recent history in conference tournaments does raise some questions.
Looking ahead to this weekend's ACC Tournament, then, which teams really have a lot to gain from winning the title?
After losing three of their final six games, North Carolina may have to win the crown Sunday to earn a No. 1 seed later that night. But even if they exit early, the Tar Heels will still earn the highest seed of any ACC team and will still probably be no lower than a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This UNC team's legacy has nothing to do with an ACC championship, and everything to do with the Big Dance.
With a strong showing in Tampa, Duke could quiet season-long criticism of not living up to preseason expectations-the Blue Devils were picked second in the conference, but stumbled to a seventh place finish. For such a young team, an ACC title would be a major accomplishment. Plus, with their difficult strength of schedule and high RPI ranking, Duke could still potentially earn a No. 3 seed with an ACC title on its resume.
For the ACC's other five NCAA Tournament locks-Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Maryland and Georgia Tech-their seeding will be affected, but it is unlikely that any would capture even a No. 3 seed, let alone anything higher. And anything short of cutting down the nets on Sunday will probably not be enough for Clemson or Florida State to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
So the question is: how relevant is the ACC Tournament at this point? The win-or-go-home mentality really doesn't begin for another week. For now, some teams might be better off going home so that they have fresher legs to win when it really matters.