Too bad the 64-team NCAA tournament killed off all those quaint little postseason family affairs conducted by 29 of the 32 Division I conferences. No significance anymore. Motivation down the drain. Took the try out of every team's sails. Everyone makes the NCAAs anyway; better to wind down, as the stubborn Big Ten and Ivy League do, with ordinary league races where every scheduled game means something. Right, Vinny? Yo, Vinny Del Negro?
If ever an unknown gym rat, previously relegated to career-long obscurity, stole the cheese and gnawed some holes into the above canard in one short weekend, it was North Carolina State's Del Negro.
Naturally, Vinny worked his magic at last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Landover, Md., winning the championship of the league that made this crazy business what it is today. Not only did Del Negro, a 6'5" junior guard from Springfield, Mass.—your basic non-Hall of Famer from the Hall of Fame city—score 42 points in three games and coolly mesh the clinching free throws that gave the unranked Wolfpack, 6-8 in the ACC, its stupendous 68-67 final game victory over 14-0 No. 2 North Carolina, but the longtime bench warmer also walked off with the MVP trophy.
And this was after both semifinals—North Carolina vs. Virginia and N.C. State vs. Wake Forest—produced the everlasting memories of not one overtime game but two, and not two overtimes but four. And this was after seventh-seeded Wake, winner of just two conference games all season, beat second-seeded Clemson on the mite of 5'3" Muggsy Bogues (17 points), who would have all but iced an overtime victory over the Wolfpack had his banked three-pointer been released a tick before, instead of after, the 45-second clock expired.
Contrast that scenario with the plight of the tourney-less Big Ten, in which Purdue, needing only to win at Michigan on the season's penultimate day to clinch its first outright title since 1969, ended up sharing the crown with Indiana by virtue of a heartbreaking nip-and-tuck loss to the Wolverines, 104-68.
In truth, conference tournaments have become the lifeblood of the leagues that run them, and not merely for the money they bring in. The reason some of the season's greatest performances and most dramatic moments unfold in these miniseries should be clear to anyone who understands that love and hate and in-your-face are especially heightened by propinquity.
Moreover, it is clear that these bloodfeud affairs are much more than mere prelude to the NCAA tournament when squads as radically diverse as the marquee Hoyas of Georgetown and the obscure Bengals of Idaho State jockey for position, momentum, self-respect, a pompon of prestige and maybe even a favorable seed so they can dance another day. Georgetown tore through the Big East field in Madison Square Garden, holding Syracuse 25 points below its average in a 69-59 championship showdown, while Idaho State, which finished off an improbable string of upsets in the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz., won the Big Sky tournament championship despite its 5-9 league record.
For years the rest of college basketball belittled the granddaddy ACC tournament, first held in Raleigh in 1954, as a huckster's paradise that caused teams to peak too early in a contrived atmosphere of cash-and-carry. But how exciting was the ACC? The first game of the first tournament went into OT. So did the first title game. And so did the best ACC tourney game of all—maybe the best game ever—N.C. State's 103—100 win over Maryland in 1974. And how influential was it? The ACC tournament merely changed the sport forever. Because the '73-74 Terps were arguably the second-best team in the land but could not play in the 25-team NCAAs, that game helped bring about the expansion of the big tournament and the change in its rules so that teams other than league champions could get in. And largely because North Carolina and Virginia turned the '82 ACC final into that infamous 47-45 stallball classic, rule makers decided to experiment with a shot clock.
Of course it was a bleak day when the ACC decided in the early '70s to occasionally hold its tournament outside the state of North Carolina (it belonged in Landover, cracked John Feinstein of The Washington Post last week, "like Fawn Hall belongs behind a typewriter"), but having all members of a conference duking it out for several days in the same location is now used almost everywhere. And now, almost everywhere, dramatic and chaotic moments occur:
•In the semifinals of the East Coast Conference tournament in Towson, Md., Ted Aceto of Bucknell, son of the Villanova athletic director, scored five points in the last 37 seconds to offset a 49-point performance by Lehigh's Daren Queenan as the Bison won 103-100 in, yes, double overtime.
•In the finals of the Western Athletic Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico's Kelvin Scarborough hit a three-pointer to tie Wyoming with 13 seconds left. At that point New Mexico coach Gary Colson ordered his team to foul the Cowboys' worst free throw shooter, Sean Dent. But Dent made both to give Wyoming a 64-62 lead. Now the Cowboys fouled the Lobos' Scarborough as he drove the lane. But with five seconds on the clock he missed twice from the line and, after New Mexico got the rebound, George Adams shot—twice—from the baseline, and both were blocked by Wyoming sub Willie Jones. Questioned later about his strategy, Colson pounded his fist and stormed away, snapping, "Writers! Negative, negative, negative."
•Also feeling negative was Oklahoma's Stacey King, whose 82-foot sidearm off-the-glass in-the-basket heave with one second clearly remaining in the first half of the Big Eight semifinal between Kansas and Oklahoma was waved off by a referee. The basket would have given the Sooners a seven-point lead in a game they eventually lost by five.
So, for Colson's sake, some positives:
•Northeastern's Andre LaFleur set the NCAA career assist record (891) as the Huskies won their fourth consecutive ECAC North Atlantic final, 71-68 over Boston University.
•Austin Peay State's Richie Armstrong drained a lunging 28-foot trey at the buzzer for a 71-68 Ohio Valley championship thriller over Eastern Kentucky, which had just scored five points in 10 seconds to tie.
•Santa Clara's Jens Gordon, after taking an elbow in the nose and collapsing on the court early in the second half, came back to score 13 of his 17 points, win a Yellow Hard Hat award from his teammates and lead them to the WCAC title over Pepperdine, 77-65.
•Billy Donovan of Providence and Sherman Douglas of Syracuse took turns setting the Big East tournament one-game scoring record, Donovan with 34 points against St. John's in the quarterfinals, Douglas with 35 against Pills-burgh in the semifinals. Then each ran into the Georgetown defense, which held Donovan to 11 and made Douglas work extra hard for every one of his 20.
•In the Southwest Conference tournament, last-seeded Texas A & M beat first-place TCU in the first round, 81-70. The Aggies then whipped Texas Tech and walloped second-seeded Baylor for the title, 71-46.
•And Donn Holston of Idaho State, who is one-half Yurok Indian, scored 24 points in the Bengals' 92-81 Big Sky win over Nevada-Reno—a climax to the wildest tournament of all. Three of the first four games were won by the lower-seeded team; two were one-pointers, one was a two-pointer. And for the kicker, last-place Weber State beat first-place Montana State 106-101.
Yurok, I'm O.K. But Grambling State wasn't. Like North Carolina, the Tigers won the regular-season title in their league, but lost the SWAC tournament final. To Southern U. By 50 points.