Big Ten tournament proves it is worthy after lackluster beginning

CHICAGO — The sweetest irony of the inaugural Big Ten Tournament would have been for Indiana and Minnesota to meet in the final, thus giving the only two coaches who voted against the idea — Bob Knight and Clem Haskins — reason to scratch their heads and say, “This isn’t so bad.”
It didn’t work out that way. The Gophers pulled off the upset of the tournament, beating top-seeded Michigan State to advance to the semifinals before falling to Michigan. Indiana lost a squeaker to Purdue, the eventual tournament runner-up, in the quarterfinals.
Still, the Big Ten tournament gave Minnesota a chance to play its way into the National Invitational Tournament. Although that tourney is often thought of as the ugly stepsister of the Big Dance, it’s a consolation prize the Gophers wouldn’t have had if the Big Ten season had ended a week ago.
Haskins, whose “nay” vote stemmed from the Big Ten’s refusal to use some of the gargantuan revenues from the tournament to pay for the parents of players to attend the games, begrudgingly admitted that a) the Big Ten tournament is here to stay, and b) he’s suddenly very happy to be here.
“If we win it and we get into postseason play,” Haskins said after the Michigan State game, “then all of a sudden with what I’ve been saying all along people will be saying, `You must be crazy, Haskins.'”
“But you’ve got to understand, I have a strong belief in certain things. I would still not vote for it, unless they change some things. But I’m excited about it now. It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the Big Ten, and whether it has my support or not, it’s going to be here.”
Yes, it is. And the surprising success of a team like Minnesota — the No. 8 seed coming into the tournament, a year removed from a trip to the Final Four — is a perfect reason for its existence.
Aside from the parental attendance argument, the tournament’s critics say it diminishes the importance of the regular season.
Perhaps those critics would prefer the NCAA to follow college football’s lead and go to a bowl game system. That way, the teams that have labored to protect a pristine regular-season record wouldn’t have to worry about putting it on the line in March.
Fact is, a team that was good enough to compile a 20-6 record and earn the tournament’s No. 1 seed should be able to beat the No. 8 seed, regardless of the date or location. Michigan State couldn’t do that, so it went home a few days earlier than expected. But in losing the Spartans learned an even more important lesson: The regular season isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit in the single-elimination postseason.
That’s not to say, however, that by reaching the semifinals the Gophers proved they’re one of the top four teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s short-termed success came thanks to a few hot hands — valuable assets come tournament time. In the 16-game regular season, the cream is bound to rise to the top. But the tournaments can really fiddle with the expiration date.
Speaking of ugly stepsisters, the Cinderella factor is simply a part of the postseason. How many one-time bubble teams have advanced to the Sweet 16, even the Elite Eight? Plenty.
There’s something to be said for simply taking the top 64 teams in the polls and seeding them accordingly in the postseason, but there’s supposed to be some fun involved in March Madness, and the fun has historically involved a victorious team that had no business beating its opponents.
That’s a tradition that has carried over to the conference tournaments, a potential that makes them worth watching.
There’s nothing in the current bylaws that prohibits league officials from someday finding a conscience, prying the checkbooks out of their cold, tightly-clenched hands and flying in the parents. Maybe then Haskins could eat his cake and like it, too.
When asked Friday how long he thinks Haskins will withhold his support of the fledgling tournament, forward Miles Tarver said, “If we make it to the NCAAs, he’ll have nothing but praise for it.”
But the Gophers’ run should be praise enough.