ASHEVILLE For many college basketball fans in the Carolinas, the conference tournament hasnt started yet. They are wondering about whether North Carolina and Duke will play for a third time Saturday in the ACC tournament in Greensboro and whether Miami can justify its No.1 seed.
But Im here to tell you that the real conference basketball tournaments the best conference tournaments these days have already begun. Davidson plays in the final of one of them Monday night, knowing that it must win or be stuck on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament.
In the Southern Conference, there is no debate about how many teams will make the field as there is every year in the ACC. Four? Five? Six?
In the Southern, the answer is always the same:
Thats what makes a night like Monday so deliciously tense. Similarly, thats what makes a story like Libertys so cool. The Flames are only 15-20, yet they got hot at just the right time and swept through the Big South tournament to earn an NCAA spot. With 20 losses?! Youve got to love that.
No. 1 seed Davidson, on the other hand, is 25-7 and has won 19 of 20 games this year against Southern Conference foes. Yet it still must win one more to get to the NCAA tourney for the second year in a row.
On a side note, Davidson actually has a shot at two NCAA berths on the same court Monday. The womens basketball team from Davidson, 21-11 and seeded No. 2, faces top-seeded Chattanooga at 3 p.m. The mens final follows four hours later.
In terms of location, its hard to imagine the Southern Conference could find a better city than Asheville. Simply from a logistical standpoint, its hard to beat.
The arena is downtown and within walking distance of Ashevilles eclectic array of art galleries, ethnic restaurants and street musicians. I love it, I overheard one fan say to another. You can go and eat, get there right before gametime, buy a last-minute ticket and still have a great seat.
Tickets are relatively cheap, too $22 for a single ticket ($17 for students). And the arena hasnt been full all weekend, so its true that a late walk-up ticket has been as easy as finding a view of the mountains.
The scenery is mostly lost on the players, of course, so desperate is their desire to win. Davidson nearly got upset Sunday night in the first semifinal, coming back from 13 points down in the final 15 minutes to edge Appalachian State, 65-62. The Mountaineers had a 3-pointer rim out at the buzzer or the game would have gone to overtime.
It was a breathtaking finish, in large part because it meant so much. Unlike in the ACC or the other blueblood tournaments coming up in a few days, the conference get-together isnt a time for polishing a resume (or throwing a cocktail party). Its not about getting a higher seed in the NCAA tournament. Its about making the 68-team field at all.
Im certainly not advocating the ACC return to 40 years ago and only allow the conference champion to go to the NCAAs. That would be ridiculous at this point.
I am simply pointing out that the Southern Conference tournament and its brethren remain among the best-kept secrets in college basketball: affordable, emotional and absolutely entrancing.