by Jerry Keys
Most sports fans forgo the regular season in college sports and either watch the bowl games or the college World Series. The same can also be said for college basketball. March Madness is a staple for even the non-sports fan. The office pools have been a mainstay for decades.
The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) and SEC (Southeastern Conference) always get the publicity and headlines; along with other power conferences, the Big East, Big 10 and Big 12. Between these five conferences, roughly half of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament will come from one of these. The SEC is regionally based in this area but also is the much smaller schools. These schools are second fiddle in football also; the Southern Conference.
If you asked most people in this area if they are a UT Vol fan or a UT Moc fan, it would be safe to say three out of four would say a Vol fan. You could even talk sports with people 1500 miles away and if you say UT, it is taken for granted it is UT-Knoxville. The UT-Chattanooga (UTC) sports do not have the prestige of its northern counterparts, but can boast several accolades. The Southern Conference has fared better than most realize in the NCAA March Madness.
Going back to the 1985 expansion to 64 teams, the conference has been represented each year. Unfortunately their seeding in the first round placed them against one of the major powerhouses of the day. Marshall was at one time a member of the conference and was the representative in 1985 and 1987, seeding #15 and #13. A #15 seed is pitted against a #2 seed and #13, a #4. Each game resulted in a loss. Davidson is currently a member of the conference but took a few years hiatus before returning in the 1990's. They were a #16 seed in 1986 and lost to the #1 seed.
UTC made an appearance in 1988 as a #16 seed and suffered a loss in the opening round. From 1989-92, East TN St. University (ETSU) reeled off four straight appearances. As a #16 seed, they gave the #1 Oklahoma team all they could handle, losing the game by a single point. Going into the 2012 tournament, no #16 has ever defeated a #1. In 1990 and 1991 they entered as #13 and #10 (a 10 seed plays a #7) but were eliminated handily in each year. 1992 was a different story, being pitted as a #14, they were placed against #3 Arizona. ETSU pulled a major upset and advanced to the second round. Although they fell to #6 Michigan, ETSU claimed the conferences first NCAA March Madness victory since the still young 64-team format.
UTC returned to the tourney the next three years, 1993-95. They entered as a #12 seed in '93 and were matched up against a #5 and lost. The next two years UTC were a #13 and #15 and unable to secure a win. Many college hoop analysts questioned if a Southern Conference could ever pull off another upset. Western Carolina was the conference representative in 1996 and although they were a #16 seed, they gave #1 Purdue all types of fits. Purdue did pull out a two-point victory. UTC returned in 1997 and was again a very low seed, #14. Behind the dynamic play of Johnny Taylor, UTC upset #3 Georgia and #6 Illinois to advance to the Sweet 16. A trip to the Elite 8 was dashed after a ferocious comeback from #10 Providence.
For the next ten years, the conference champion was dismissed handily in the first round. The teams who made the trip to March Madness over this period were: 1998-Davison #14, 1999-College of Charleston #8 (played a #9), 2000-Appalachian St #14, 2001-UNC-Greensboro #16, 2002-Davidson #13, 2003-ETSU #15, 2004-ETSU #13, 2005-UTC #15, 2006-Davidson #15, and 2007-Davidson #13. The 2008 Davidson team, headed by Stephen Curry (son of former NBA veteran Dell) came within one shot of a possible Final Four appearance. Davidson was seeded at #10 and defeated #7 Gonzaga, #2 Georgetown and #3 Wisconsin to claim an Elite 8 bid. They lost to eventual champions #1 Kansas 59-57.
UTC returned to the tournament in 2009 but fared as they did in their last trip to March Madness, a #16 seed loss. Wofford has been the Southern representative the past two years but not with any success, a #13 seed in 2010, and #14 in 2011; each opening round losses. The 2012 Sothern tournament will begin in early March to decide who will get the right to test their luck in March Madness.
The conference is divided into a North and South region. Each region has six teams. Each play 18 games within their conference. The top two teams from each region receive a 'bye' to the second round. This year UNC-Greensboro and Elon were the top two finishers in the North; while Davidson and Wofford in the West. The last four teams from each region will see action in round one to determine the four winners who will proceed to the second round.
The first round games are slated for March 2nd in Asheville, NC. The four games will be 1-Charleston vs. Appalachian St., 2-Western Carolina vs. Citadel, 3-Samford vs. Furman, and 4-Georgia Southern vs. UTC. The winner of game one will face UNC-Greensboro, game two Wofford, game three Davidson, and game four Elon. The second round is scheduled for March 3rd, semi-finals March 4th and the final on March 5th. Conference tournaments are held to find out who will proceed to the NCAA tourney. No team is guaranteed a birth; Citadel was 3-15 in Southern games and Davidson 16-2. Davidson defeated Citadel twice this year. It is not beyond reason, Citadel may have Davidson's number in their third game.
The conference tournaments are excellent ideas in general. If these were not implemented, many teams would consider their season over by the first of February if a team like the 2007-08 Davidson ran the table (20-0 vs. Southern teams). But on the flip side, a team can go winless in conference play and still qualify for the tourney. The only incentive is the first round 'bye' by the top two teams in the North and South. Maybe the last two teams in the North and South should not participate in the tourney but this would eliminate the reward of a first round bye for the top two. The answer may never be known but it does not seem to be a true balance when a team can lose every conference game and still have a shot at winning the Southern tourney.