The early session of the Big East Tournament’s quarterfinals were nothing short of epic.
In the opener, UConn beat Pitt when Kemba Walker amputated Gary McGhee’s ankles before drilling a seventeen-foot buzzer beater. In the second game, St. John’s lost a nail biter to Syracuse in front of the best crowd we have seen at the tournament to date. It was thrilling, it was tense, it was was everything you expect the Big East Tournament to be.
In the evening session, however, we weren’t quite as lucky. Louisville ran Marquette off the court just hours after Notre Dame embarrassed Cincinnati.
One of the biggest points of contention coming into this season in the Big East was the structure of the conference tournament. The way it is currently set up, the top four teams get a double-bye, a free pass into the quarterfinals. In the previous two Big East tournaments played with this format, however, only three of the eight teams that received the double bye advanced.
Its part of the reason that the coaches tried to vote it away this offseason. And while that proposal was eventually shot down by the higher-ups in the Big East, it didn’t seem to have much of an effect the outcomes this season despite the Big East being as balanced No. 1-No. 11 as it has ever been. Three of the top four seeds advanced, with Pitt’s loss to UConn being the only blemish.
But that doesn’t mean that the coaches are happy about it.
“I’ve said for two years now when you sit around till Thursday it’s not good,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after his team’s 79-73 win over St. John’s. “I think it’s difficult for the top seeds to do that. I’m glad we won so that everybody doesn’t think I’m crying but it’s — I don’t think it’s a good way to do it.”
Rick Pitino concurred, saying he “worries about the double bye sometimes, just not being prepared.”
“I just like to play a little bit, rather than sit them.”
Its counter-intuitive, when you think about it.
Instead of being given the gift of the quarterfinals in exchange for performing well during conference play, the Big East coaches voted that the top four teams should have to earn their way into the quarters. Their argument is that it is more of an advantage to get a tune-up against a bottom four team in the conference, to wet your feet in the waters of Madison Square Garden, than it is to sit for two days and play a team already in the flow of the tournament, tired legs be damned.
The argument does hold some validity. We are talking about 18-21 year olds in peak physical condition that came up through an AAU system where they played as many as four games in a day. Physical exhaustion is less of a worry than the distractions that come with staying in New York City.
There are way to battle it, however.
Mike Brey took his players to see Jersey Boys and played knock out at practices and shootarounds to keep the mood lightened.
“I think it’s a matter of how you prepare and I think this group has prepared tremendously all year,” Ben Hansbrough, the Big East player of the year, said after the game. “You can look at it either one or two ways, a bunch of young guys would look at it that maybe we don’t prepare the best but we prepared ourselves mentally and take our mental preparation to the next level and we did that through practice.”
Rick Pitino, on the other hand, treated this trip to New York like any other road trip.
“I think we did an intelligent thing, we didn’t come until late Wednesday,” Pitino said. “So we treated it just like a road game. We didn’t need to rest.”
The coaches may not like it, but the double bye isn’t going anywhere, at least not in the near future. Its just another obstacle to deal with in what is the toughest conference tournament in the country.
Hell, there is an argument to be made that the double bye had zero influence on today’s quarterfinal games. Even the team that lost jumped out to an early, double-digit lead.
“I’ve never been a favor of sitting out two days,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said, “but I don’t think it affected [Pitt] because they came out and shot really good. Given our league, they came out early, so I don’t know that that was a factor.”
The factor that the coaches are ignoring is that, at the end of the day, the conference tournament title is relatively meaningless. Fans love it when their team happens to win, but forget about the title a day or two later when the selection committee.
And playing four games in four days, which the champion and runner-up would then have to do, could put more strain on the teams and risks more injury that you have already.
Eventually, a change to the format is going to need to be made with TCU joining the Big East.
But until then, coaches, no more whining about the double bye.
Today proved that it is relatively meaningless.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.