After the loss at Florida on Saturday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari expressed his dislike of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in the form of a pointed question.
“I’m not a big proponent of playing three, four days in a row at the end of the year,” he said. “We already have a league champion. . . . What are we doing this for?”
Let’s count the ways, beginning with the advice made famous in the Watergate scandal of 40-some years ago: Follow the money.
“They’re tremendous revenue producers for the conferences,” retired NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt said when asked why conferences play postseason tournaments. “That would be a factor, and maybe the primary factor.”
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And not only the conferences can prosper. So can the host cities.
Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin, a native of St. Louis, made that point when asked about the SEC Tournament being here. Fans figure to fill hotels and restaurants.
“If you can generate revenue for the area, for the downtown area . . . , all that stuff is very exciting,” he said. “With everybody coming, that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s too early to know how the SEC Tournament will impact the economy of St. Louis. But Frank Viverito, the president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, said his group was told that the SEC Tournament added $18 to $21 million to the Nashville economy in 2015, again in 2016 and again in 2017.
Postseason tournaments also serve as a way of promoting basketball in the leagues.
Mike Tranghese, a consultant to the SEC and a former commissioner of the Big East Conference, said a postseason tournament in Madison Square Garden gave the Big East credibility.
“I can’t even begin to describe to you the value of the Big East Tournament in New York,” Tranghese said. “It was vital. And our coaches thought it was vital for recruiting.”
The SEC moved its tournament to St. Louis this year in hopes of increasing the league’s influence beyond the Southeast, Tranghese said. As a bonus, Martin improved Missouri’s team, and Michael Porter Jr. returning to action increased excitement.
Tradition also plays a part in why conferences hold tournaments. Because of its postseason tournament, the Atlantic Coast Conference was the envy of other leagues. Imitation became the sincerest form of flattery.
“I remember the other conferences wanted to see if they could create that same kind of magic,” said Bill Hancock, who served as an NCAA liaison to the Selection Committee. “And I think to a great extent, the other conferences have created the same kind of magic.”
Or as Tranghese put it, conference tournaments “have sort of become a way of life in college basketball.”
Conference tournaments serve as an appetizer for March Madness.
“It helps to begin to put the focus on college basketball,” Hancock said. “It sort of whets the whistle of fans.”
Of course, Calipari’s objections are not based on economics nor promotion nor tradition. He’s thinking about what’s right for basketball teams. And he’s been consistent in his displeasure with having to play in a conference tournament. When his UK team’s only chance to play in the 2013 NCAA Tournament was by winning the SEC Tournament, he still termed the event unnecessary.
“John’s probably in the minority,” Tranghese said. “That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
Calipari has a new-found ally of sorts in Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy. With his team feeling assured of an NCAA bid this year, “You can see the negative of it from the standpoint of playing too many games. . . . I have a different appreciation for what Cal’s saying.”
For instance, A&M guard Admon Gilder usually sits out the day after a game because of knee surgery last year, Kennedy said. If A&M advances, all eyes will be on Gilder.
The conference tournament can give players and coaches a taste of the win-or-go-home reality of the NCAA Tournament.
“That can be a positive,” Kennedy said. “And then the setting being a totally neutral site can be something that can get you ready for the next week.
“And you may play a guy with two fouls in the first half that wouldn’t have played earlier in the year.”
Tranghese suggested that self-interest can rule how a team or coach views conference tournaments. He used this year’s Big Ten Tournament to make the point.
“Purdue was in great shape to get a No. 1 seed,” he said. “They lose. Now it looks like a No. 2 seed. So if I’m Purdue, I don’t like it.
“But if I’m Michigan, I love it. People were talking about them as a five or six seed. I win the Big Ten. Now, all of a sudden they’re talking about me as a three seed.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
Kentucky’s opener: UK plays either Georgia, Vanderbilt or Missouri in Friday afternoon’s second game, which should tip off around 3:25 p.m. EST.