Amid all the analyzing, projecting and guessing that goes on at this time of year, it is easy to overlook one basic fact of conference basketball tournaments: This is how automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament are determined.
Nobody’s a bigger believer in Bracketology than I am, having eagerly awaited every report from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi regarding which teams might be coming to EnergySolutions Arena next week.
But that’s a scientific process, in a system that’s created to allow some unlikely developments — such as what’s happening in Las Vegas. Utah, the No. 10 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, will meet Oregon in a semifinal game tonight. Just across I-15 on Tropicana Avenue, No. 7 Texas State and No. 9 Texas-San Antonio each will appear in a semifinal contest in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
Obviously, those teams are a long way from completing a run to the NCAA Tournament, but it could happen for any of them. Some would say this is the flaw of the conference tournaments, but to me it proves their value.
Admittedly, I was dismissive when Utah fell to 3-13 in Pac-12 play and coach Larry Krystkowiak kept saying he wanted his team to regroup and focus on getting ready for Las Vegas. But it worked. The Utes responded by beating Oregon State and Oregon to close the regular season, then edged a depleted a USC team in the first round of the tournament before rallying to beat No. 2 California in overtime in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
The Utes’ recent performance validates Krystkowiak’s program in his second season, but why stop here? The Utes obviously are capable of beating Oregon, and they’ve competed favorably against Arizona and UCLA, the other semifinalists.
Meanwhile, Utah State missed a chance to stage an incredible run to the NCAA Tournament, after all of the team’s medical issues. With the top two seeds eliminated, the Aggies rallied from 18 points down to take a late lead against Texas-Arlington in the WAC quarterfinals, but ended up losing 83-78. USU would have faced No. 9 UTSA in the semifinals.
That potential opportunity makes the Aggies’ early exit tougher to take, during a week that reminds us to leave some blanks in those projected brackets.