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Thursday March 8, 2001

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Proposed Pac-10 tourney will help most of the conference

By Connor Doyle

Tonight's game between UA and Stanford will mark the end of an era. With a Pacific 10 Conference Tournament beginning next season, the Wildcats and Cardinal will be embarking on the last regular season game with conference championship implications.

The team's two coaches - Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery - aren't exactly getting misty-eyed about tonight's matchup. In fact, both coaches have publicly opposed the reinstatement of a year-end conference tournament.

Their reasons for decrying the conference playoff aren't hard to figure out - the Cardinal and Wildcats are consistently in contention for the top spot in the conference.

These two teams basically have their tickets to the NCAA Tournament punched before the season starts. A conference tournament would rarely prove beneficial to their teams.

That's not the case for most of the other teams in the Pac-10. A conference tournament is in the best interest of the conference despite UA and Stanford's objections.

UCLA sided with Stanford and UA until this past year. UCLA is in a position similar to that of the two aforementioned schools - the Bruins are almost guaranteed a bid to the NCAA Tournament every year.

However, the conference tournament is going to take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and UCLA quickly folded to civic pressure and cast its support.

The other seven teams in the Pac-10 all have had varying levels of success in the past decade. California and USC will both likely be going to the tournament this year, and USC in particular fields consistently competitive teams.

However, rarely are these teams considered to be in contention for the conference title.

This leaves the "bottom five" of the conference - Arizona Sate, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State - as the teams that will benefit most from the conference playoff.

These teams may have surprise years and earn berths to the NCAA Tournament, but more often than not they find themselves relegated to the National Invitational Tournament or - even worse - at home during "March Madness."

For the "bottom five," a Pac-10 tournament provides the only feasible opportunity to compete for a NCAA berth, year in and year out.

Should OSU go on a four-game tear and knock off two of the top three seeds, they would be rewarded with a berth. What's so wrong with that?

A tournament will bring a level of hope for the smaller schools in the conference that don't have the recruiting prowess of the top programs.

In the midst of a terrible season, they can always look forward to the tournament with hope for a clean slate.

A win in the conference tournament will mean more high school players would consider entering their program. This will benefit the rest of the conference and - in the end - that which benefits the rest of the conference will benefit Stanford and UA.

That's why teams enter conferences in the first place.

Olson and Montgomery want to hear none of this. All they see is a chance that their teams might choke in the conference tournament and jeopardize their seeding in the NCAA. It's the equivalent of someone in baseball hitting above .400 going into the last month of the season, and sitting out the rest of the games.

If we were to see that happen, we would call it bad sportsmanship. It's no different in the case of Olson and Montgomery. They care only about the welfare of their own teams, as opposed to the welfare of the conference that gives them five teams to feast on in the regular season.

Some of the arguments raised against the tournament by Montgomery and Olson deserve consideration, however. They claim that a conference tournament cheapens the regular season. Instead of playing for a championship, they'll be playing for a seed.

While to an extent that may be true, it's ridiculous to think that the regular season is for naught. In fact, the regular season will be what allows Arizona and Stanford to go to the NCAA Tournament if they don't win the conference. Their regular-season records will likely be more than enough to earn an at-large bid, and probably a higher seed in the NCAAs than a lower Pac-10 team that happened to win the tournament.

Both coaches have argued that the conference tournament will serve to wear out the teams right before the NCAA Tournament, causing players to miss more classes.

In response to the first objection, the other "top" conferences in the country, like the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big XII and South Eastern Conference all have tournaments. And they still produce Final Four teams consistently.

If Olson was so concerned about players missing class, how can he possibly defend the early-season schedule, which had the Wildcats playing in two out-of-town tournaments in a span of two weeks?

I think there's one thing the coaches at UA and Stanford fear more than anything, but will never admit to. It's likely that a conference tournament will mean one more game between the Wildcats and the Cardinal. History has shown that when these teams play, the result is always in doubt.

Perhaps Olson is afraid that three meetings in one season with the Cardinal will prove that the Wildcats aren't a tournament-ready team.

However, the possibility that the two top teams in a conference have to play one game to decide the champion is exactly what makes conference tournaments - and college basketball in general - exciting.

Basketball fans around the country are licking their chops at the possibility of Michigan State-Illinois, Duke-North Carolina and Florida-Kentucky match-ups in their respective conference finals.

Hell, lots of people are looking forward to Iona-Siena. That's what makes conference tournaments so special and wildly popular with the fans.

It's unfortunate that Olson and Montgomery's selfishness has cost the Pac-10 a tournament this long. All one has to do is turn on ESPN any time during the next week and they'll understand why some feel that conference tournaments are almost as exciting as the "Big Dance."

The unbridled joy that comes over the face of an athlete who just participated in a huge upset to get his team into the NCAA tournament reminds us why college basketball is special, and superior to the professional ranks. Oregon State, Oregon, and even ASU could be that Cinderella team.

It's nice to see that the Pac-10's grinches - Olson and Montgomery - aren't going to be allowed to ruin the season for the rest of the conference any longer.