It offers great allure and loathing, a singular sporting event of both promise and dread.
College basketball teams from mid-major programs know they had best win their conference tournament if they want a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
And none know that more than the teams from the Big West Conference.
It has been 12 years since the Big West advanced more than one team into March Madness, and those two teams — Pacific and Utah State — are no longer in the conference.
Only the winner of the conference tournament is guaranteed to advance, which means that should regular-season champion UC Irvine (19-13) stumble at any point during the Big West tournament starting Thursday at the Honda Center, it would likely be left with the NIT.
“It’s kind of unfair to some degree, because UCI has had a great year, UC Davis has had a great year, but if they don’t do well in this [tournament], it doesn’t matter,” Cal State Northridge Coach Reggie Theus said.
Irvine defeated Davis (19-12) by 30 points Saturday to clinch the regular-season title. This from a team that returned only one starter, albeit the conference’s player of the year, Luke Nelson.
But the Big West has been particularly unpredictable in recent years. Last year, regular-season conference champion Hawaii won the tournament. But two years ago it was No. 3 seed Irvine. And three years ago it was No. 7 Cal Poly.
“What’s exciting about this year’s tournament is a number of teams are coming to Anaheim all thinking they can win three games in a row,” Davis Coach Jim Les said. “It puts some excitement in the air.”
Irvine has outright won or shared the conference regular-season title in three of the last four seasons. It opens play against No. 8 UC Riverside (7-20), a loser of its last seven games, including two to the Anteaters.
Which still assures little.
“You can have a great year and not make it to the conference final,” Theus said. “We saw that happen two years ago when a seventh seed won the tournament. In our conference tournament you never know what’s going to happen.”
Big West teams that won the tournament have struggled after advancing into NCAA play. Last year’s first-round upset by Hawaii over California was the conference’s first win in the NCAA tournament in 11 years. No team has won more than one NCAA tournament game since ex-member New Mexico State did it in 1992.
With that kind of track record, it’s win the conference tournament or lower expectations. Irvine could win two games to finish with 21 victories, lose in the conference final and still not receive an NCAA invite. It has the Big West’s best NCAA RPI ranking, but still a middling 135.
“Whatever happened during the regular conference season doesn’t matter anymore,” Theus said. “The only thing that matters is the next three games.”
Which may Irvine the favorite, but not exactly a heavy one. Irvine split its season series with Davis, Cal Poly (11-19), Long Beach State (14-18) and Cal State Fullerton (16-13).
Fullerton enters the tournament as the league’s hottest team. The Titans have won six of their last seven games, including against Irvine and Davis. This after it lost four of its first five conference games. Fullerton opens tournament play against Northridge.
“I really think this group has settled into rhythm,” Titans Coach Dedrique Taylor said. “I thought this group was capable of doing something like this, and even more.”
In the Big West tournament, teams are receded after the first round so that the highest remaining seeded team plays the lowest.
Big West men’s tournament schedule
Honda Center, Thursday-Saturday
TV: FS West
No. 2 UC Davis vs. No. 7 Cal Poly, noon
No. 3 CS Fullerton vs. No. 6 CS Northridge, 2:30 p.m.
TV: Prime Ticket
No. 1 UC Irvine vs. No. 8 UC Riverside, 6 p.m.
No. 4 Long Beach State vs. No. 5 Hawaii, 8:30 p.m.
Highest remaining seed vs. lowest, 6:30 p.m.
Other semifinal, 9 p.m.
Championship, 8:30 p.m.
Big West women’s tournament schedule and results
at Honda Center
CSUN 71, Hawaii 64
UC Santa Barbara 81, UC Riverside 71
No. 1 UC Davis vs. No. 4 UC Santa Barbara, noon
No. 2 Long Beach State vs. No. 3 CS Northridge, 2:30
4 p.m., TV: Prime