LOWELL, Mass. – Unfolding amid endless montages of buzzer-beating shots, dog piles and net cutting, this week's flurry of conference title games is branded as Championship Week on ESPN. There's nothing in sports quite like it – a marathon of reality TV shows back-to-back almost every night where viewers voyeur the thin line between delirium and despair.
There are fewer results in sports that mean as much as conference title games, as they are often the school's only national television appearance and there's a canyon of difference between the gilded spoils of the NCAA tournament or an alternative anonymous afterthought of unrecognizable initials. (Sorry, CBI.) It's the difference between Broadway and Branson, a spree of Game 7s with careers, reputations of academic institutions and millions of dollars at stake.
All this makes the pressure on the coaches and players in the one-bid leagues around college basketball some of the most ominous and haunting in all of sports. One man's Championship Week is another's Hell Week, with 24 leagues projecting to only yield one bid plenty of opportunity for disparate emotions. (Liberty, Gardner-Webb, Bradley and Murray State have already clinched.)
Compile 25 wins? Run away with your regular-season conference title? Clinch the top seed in your league tournament? Those are all footnotes if you hit a cold spell, a star player turns an ankle or you get stymied by a junk defense or foul trouble.
What's at stake along with the bid? The direction of coaching careers ascend and decline, as reaching the NCAA tournament is exponentially – and likely unfairly – more valued on a résumé line than the consistent ability to win regular-season conference championships. Playing careers go the same way, as South Dakota State and star forward Mike Daum fell into Hell Week's abyss on Saturday night when the top-seeded Jackrabbits fell to No. 8 Western Illinois, 79-76, in the Summit League tournament. Daum scored more than 3,000 career points, but after NCAA bids the last three seasons, he'll almost assuredly end his career in the NIT. "To be blunt, it sucks," Daum told reporters after the game. "It really sucks."
That became the first searing reminder of March's inequitable realities, as those who've thrived all season have to reset and start all over again. If they don't, their seasons and dreams can be knocked out with the subtlety of a lead pipe to the forehead. This is the reality for schools like Vermont (25-6, 14-2), UC-Irvine (27-5, 15-1), Hofstra (26-6, 15-3) and New Mexico State (27-4, 15-1), who can wholly dominate for a season but still find themselves out of position to benefit from that.
"It's brutal," said Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, referencing the pressure of being favorites. He had teams at Robert Morris that won their conference regular season and ended up beating Kentucky (2013) and St. John's (2014) in the NIT. But missing that NCAA bid still lingered.
"It was so difficult to try and convince your team that they weren't failures," he said. "So much comes down to that one game, that championship game."
Recent poster children for championship-week heartbreak include Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2014, Monmouth in 2016 and Middle Tennessee last season. All had dominant conference seasons, notable non-league wins and got no love from the committee.
Vermont became the archetype for the fickle hand of championship week last season. After an undefeated conference regular season, they ended up in the prologue to history when UMBC stunned the Catamounts in the America East final. Vermont failed to score a field goal in the game's final 8:21, and UMBC's Jairus Lyles hit a game winning 3-pointer as time expired. "It took months [to get over it]," said Vermont coach John Becker, "to be totally honest."
Becker has won 70 percent of his games at the school (191-83), including three consecutive regular-season conference titles. He's reached two NCAA tournaments as a head coach, gone 4-1 against the Atlantic 10 the past two years and reached 100 league victories in 120 games, a pace comparable to boldface names like Few, Self and Chaney.
At one point this season, Vermont had a 31-game regular season conference win streak snapped. But Becker is quick to acknowledge the unforgiving postseason perception prism in college basketball. "Your season is validated, or not validated, based on one game," he said.
No one knows that better than the players, and Vermont has one of the country's most talented mid-major rosters. Anthony Lamb is a 6-foot-7 forward who was voted the unanimous conference Player of the Year, as he could end as an NBA prospect in 2020 after averaging 21.2 points this season. There's also the three Duncan brothers – Ernie, Everett and Robin – who all started at one point this season.
"I'm constantly trying to evaluate what it takes to be able to play as stress-free as possible in that game," Becker said of the championship game. "And I don't really have a good answer for it."
Becker has been head coach in five America East finals, and could earn a spot in a sixth on Tuesday if the No. 1 Catamounts can beat No. 7 Binghamton at home.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports prior to a game at UMass-Lowell last month, Becker noted the America East title game's unique challenges. It starts at 11 a.m., which means pre-game meetings at 7 a.m. The home crowd can be a psychological barrier, as he said it adds, "another layer of anxiety." But Becker isn't complaining, knowing the scale of opportunity. "Life isn't fair," he said. "It's what you signed up for."
The upshot can be extreme, of course, as the landslide of positive publicity, attention and opportunity make the stakes so unique.
"Guys make or break their careers on those games," Toole said. "That's because of the perception. Those games can propel you to life changing opportunities."
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