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Calipari’s ‘crazy idea’ on SEC tourney not all crazy

Tribune News Service • Jun 4, 2016 at 3:30 PM

According to legend, a New York sportswriter once called a University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach to ask how the sport could be improved.

“Why, I’d put the center jump back in (after every made basket), and take off the backboards and the net, just leave the hoop,” Adolph Rupp replied. “And raise the hoop 5 feet.”

Someone overheard Rupp and asked the coach if he really meant it.

“Hell, no,” Rupp replied, “but, anything for a column.”

I thought about that story Wednesday as Twitter lit up after John Calipari proposed the SEC cease holding a postseason men’s basketball tournament. Instead, Cal proposed a November event in which each SEC men’s hoops team would be promised at least three games.

Like Roy Williams and Tom Izzo, Calipari has long been known to loathe conference tournaments.

That likely was not helped this past season when the Wildcats beat Texas A&M — the team UK tied with for the SEC regular season crown — in overtime in the SEC Tournament finals only to end up seeded one line below the No. 3 Aggies in the NCAA Tournament.

Was Calipari: A.) serious with his outside-the-box plan; B.) making a point about how little the NCAA Tournament selection committee values winning the SEC tourney; C.) enjoying his ability to create a (social)-media stir; D.) all of the above?

One of the tensions of the Calipari era in Kentucky basketball has been how ambivalent the coach is toward the SEC Tournament (which hasn’t stopped Cal from winning four of seven SEC tourneys) versus how much UK’s massive fan base seems to relish that event.

The SEC tourney has essentially become the modern University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament. Especially now that the SEC Tournament has a mostly permanent home in nearby Nashville, Tenn., Kentucky enjoys a roaring home-court advantage anytime it takes the court.

That can make for a fascinating contrast to what happens in the far more consequential NCAA Tournament. Where UK appeared to have 98 percent of the fans when it beat Texas A&M in the SEC tourney finals, the Cats did not seem to have a fan advantage at all when UK lost to Indiana in the NCAA tourney round of 32 in Des Moines, Iowa.

In terms of fan convenience and planning, that’s understandable. With the conference tournament, you know well in advance when and where your team will be playing and can make travel arrangements accordingly. Conversely, with the NCAA tourney, you find logistical information out on Selection Sunday and can have mere days to prepare a trip, secure tickets etc. …

If the college sports hierarchy actually meant its talk about “student-athletes” and the educational experience, conference tournaments would be the first thing to go.

Essentially, you play a whole season to determine a league champion, then turn around and subject that champ to a one-and-done tournament to award the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In “one-bid” leagues like the Ohio Valley Conference, it seems tremendously unfair to do that to your regular-season winner (witness Murray State, 2015).

Among Power Five conferences, it seems exploitative to take the “student-athletes” off campus for a week to participate in a tournament whose championship — except in rare Cinderella runs by regular-season also-rans (witness Georgia, 2008) — doesn’t really matter.

There’s a compelling case to made that college basketball overall would be better off if the regular season were more consequential. One way of making it marginally so would be to do away with the postseason league tournaments.

What would be lost is TV revenue and exposure. As programming, ESPN’s “Championship Week” is riveting drama.

At this point, questioning league tourneys is swimming against a strong tide. Even the academically-snooty Ivy League, the last holdout without a conference tournament, is starting one in 2016-17.

Yet if the SEC were to adopt Calipari’s plan and play an early-season event, there would be benefits.

Instead of the usual lower-conference cupcakes, SEC teams would at least be playing in November against other Power Five teams.

In March, the Southeastern Conference teams that made the NCAA Tournament would be fresh without the stress of a league tourney. SEC basketball fans — which means Kentucky backers — would have time to save up and plan for NCAA tourney trips.

Alas, in the real world, E$PN will never let the $EC opt out of a postseason league tournament.

Yet, if nothing else, Calipari’s “crazy idea” was good for a column.

—Mark Story

Lexington Herald-Leader—

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