Don't Tell Buckeyes & Hoosiers Conference Tourneys Are Meaningless

Let the Madness begin: Indiana & Ohio State face likely NCAA elimination game in Big Ten tourney showdown

Let’s just get this out of the way: There will not be an all-Land of Lincoln final in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. That instate dream matchup has been relegated to the first round on Wednesday.

Before you chuckle too much, here’s why that matters: Illinois’ loss at Penn State on Sunday, coupled with Ohio State’s overtime loss to Wisconsin, not only bumped the Illini out of a Wednesday bye. It assured that the Buckeyes will play Indiana in the 8-9 game on Thursday.

And that’s the nightmare Big Ten matchup for the home office in Rosemont, Illinois.

ESPN bracket guy Joe Lunardki has Ohio State as a 12 seed playing in a First Four contest in Dayton. And Indiana is among his First Four Out.

My CBS friend Jerry Palm also has IU in his First Four Out. And while he gives the Buckeyes an 11 seed, they have lost six of their last eight, including their last three. This is what you call a wobbly finish.

Put a one-and-done conference tournament on either of those resumes. . . and their United Center matchup sure looks like an elimination game.

Both ``boast’’ 8-12 conference records. Which means that my two TMG colleagues who don’t live south of the Mason-Dixon Line would just as soon have the Hoosiers and the Buckeyes secede from the NCAA tournament, if I understand their positions correctly.

Of this much I feel certain: They don’t like the idea that a team with a lousy regular-season record can earn an NCAA automatic bid by winning a conference tournament.

Talk about going All-Brooks Brothers.

While I do feel sympathy for small schools that spoil 26-4 seasons by stumbling in their conference tournament, that’s why we call it MARCH MADNESS.

My all-time favorite Big Ten tournament might be 1999, when 11th seeded Illinois, which was 3-13 in the then 11-team conference, beat three top-25 teams (Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State) before running out of gas in the championship game against Michigan State.

If that team had worked its magic for one more game, it would have gone dancing with a 15-17, 3-13 record.

I would have had no problem with that. And not just because we would have gotten one more day of storylines involving Lon Kruger’s coaching staff wearing gamey suits for another day because they hadn’t, um, packed for that long of a weekend.

Here’s the other thing: Many of the young players who got their ears pinned back for most of that season validated their 1999 run by reaching the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in 2001 and 2002.

But more importantly, March Madness means we should celebrate anarchy. (In basketball only, please.)

Who didn’t love Loyola and Sister Jean making a triumphant run to the Final Four last year? The Ramblers, sad to say, bowed to Bradley in a Missouri Valley semii-final last week and won’t be returning to the NCAA tournament despite sharing the regular-season title under the leadership of MVC player-of-the-year Marques Townes.

One of the most memorable NCAA games I covered was the narrow 50-49 escape of No. 1 Georgetown vs. No. 16 Princeton in Providence on St. Patrick’s Day in 1989. The Tigers had a modest (for an Ivy League representative) 19-8 record that season. The Hoyas had Alonzo Mourning and Charles Smith.

None of that mattered. It simply came down to a Princeton buzzer-beater failing to go in.

The victory of 16th-seed UMBC (Maryland-Baltimore County) over Virigina last March, the first win by a 16 vs. a 1, will long be remembered as Example 1 of March Madness.

We love this stuff in the NCAA tournament. We should love it in conference tournaments, too.

If we take away the automatic NCAA bid from conference tournaments and award it to the regular-season champion, we lose that excitement.

I don’t want to lose that.

Here’s the secret. It was explained to me long ago by Darryl Sutter, a Blackhawks left winger and coach before he went on to win Stanley Cups with the L.A. Kings.

Like college basketball, the NHL regularly has its version of March Madness (although they usually happen in April), where teams that were dominant in the regular season get bounced by teams that sneaked into the playoffs.

``The regular season and the post-season,’’ he said, ``are two different seasons.’’

What? You want the NBA, where higher seeds are FDIC insured?

Just buckle up and enjoy the ride. March Madness is just as magical in conference tournaments as it is in the Big Dance.