By Jon Levy
A week prior to the tipoff of college basketball’s NCAA Tournament, the only American sports playoff which inspires anything near World Cup-level madness, The World’s Most Famous Arena hosts a yearly five day competition that doesn’t garner half the prestige of “the big dance.” No one fills out brackets, and Sally the Pittsburgh alum at your office doesn’t pick this week to wear her Panthers pullover to work, but the Big East fans that pack Madison Square Garden for the Conference Tournament are routinely witnessing what is perhaps the greatest showcase the sport of basketball has to offer.
If you’re staring at your computer, smart phone, or TYAC sanctioned printout right now and audibly asking “WHY?”, then I already know a little something about you. Specifically, you’re either a big fan of the NBA (just silly), and/or you haven’t seen much of the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament over the course of the last decade. If the latter is the case, that’s okay, not holding anything against you, but you may want to make a change. I could regale you with stories of great matchups creating impossibly close games, and teams whose “backs were against the wall,” “laying it on the line,” and “giving one hundred and ten percent,” but that would lead to excess reminiscing and prevent me from writing about soccer at all (we’ll get there, I swear). But this train of thought does remind me of the 2009 quarterfinal when Syracuse beat UCONN in six overtimes after never leading in any of the first five OT periods! You see, we were all on our last spring break (or most of us were…and we were going to go to the bar…and then there was double overtime and then…) Okay I’m done!
More relevant than the fact that this tournament creates such great sport are the obvious and not-so-obvious reasons that it does so. First off, the Big East is the best conference in college basketball almost every year, especially so since 2005 when the conference punted on football during realignment and snapped up every quality basketball school that would have them. The Big East is now a basketball beast, with quality coaches and teams from top to bottom. Furthermore, in the wake of the conference assimilating hoops squads like the Borg (Star Trek reference, book it, hate myself), the Big East now has roughly 75 schools that compete in men’s basketball. The schools include Notre Dame, Marquette, South Florida, and Saint Catherine’s School for the Blind But NBA-Ready Point Guards. The sheer number of teams creates a tournament in which some teams get a bye to the second round, the best teams get a bye to the third round like in the FA Cup, and the peons that underperformed in the regular season are forced to run the gauntlet. And this gauntlet doesn’t consist of unfamiliar faces and fun-but-weird matchups like the NCAA Tournament produces. Quite the contrary; teams that sucked in the regular season on forced to relive their worst moments and most embarrassing beatings… unless they adjust their games and give what will be referenced as “timeless performances” for years to come. This familiarity doesn’t just create a chance for redemption either; it infuses the whole tournament with rivalries revisited, and play that must be as tactically innovative as it is passionate and athletic.
The rivalries, familiarity, gamesmanship, and, in some cases deep disdain from team to team, are the best parts of the Big East Tournament, and each of those factors is present when regional soccer federations hold their cup tournaments as well. The World Cup and NCAA Tournament are massive events that dominate their considerable spheres of influence for a month at a time, but the tricky, awkward matchups they regularly create aren’t always the recipe for mouth watering competition. Regional federation cups and conference tournaments aren’t without their drawbacks, but they do provide those elements often missing from the biggest of stages.
This is where I’d love to be able to tell you the CONCACAF Gold Cup is the Big East Tournament of the soccer world, and circle my footy versions of UCONN/Pitt and Marquette/West Virginia on this summer’s schedule. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is we’re the weak. And UEFA’s Euro Cup isn’t quite the tyranny of evil men, but it sure is the closest thing the footballing world has to the Big East Tournament. While the Gold Cup only has the rivalry/familiarity aspect of the best conference tournament, the Euro offers great teams top to bottom, and the sheer number of participants that makes the Big East’s playoff what it is.
But fear not Yanks fans and proud wavers of the CONCACAF flag, the Gold Cup is far from without merit; it just happens to parallel the Southeastern Conference Tournament much more closely. SEC basketball teams play a less-skilled style in general, but are usually just as athletic as any teams in the country. And much like in our dear federation, the bottom teams in the SEC tend to be awful, with a capital A! The conference is on national TV less than the Big East or Big Ten, but does boast one of the sport’s best relatively new rivalries in Florida/Kentucky (U.S.A./Mexico). And most importantly for our immediate purposes, the SEC tournament and CONCACAF Gold Cup both have twelve teams. If you think I’m not gonna seed this thing right now you’re wrong. Top four SEC teams get byes to the second round (where in soccer two legged ties would make the most sense), so Landon’s safe for match day one. Here we go:
Canada vs. El Salvador
Winner Plays United States
Costa Rica vs. Guatemala
Winner vs. Jamaica
Cuba vs. Guadeloupe
Winner Plays Honduras
Panama vs. Grenada
Winner Plays Mexico
There’s the beginning of your bracket, you can draw the lines for the semifinal and final on your own. Oh and before anyone gets too antsy, I got my seeding from the new FIFA rankings. Blame Sepp Blatter, support Grant Wahl!
If you’re like me you can’t wait for group play in the real CONCACAF Gold Cup, but you’ll be glued to college hoops conference tournaments in the meantime. Every game of the Big East Tournament’s on ESPN; while the SEC’s on the syndicated SEC Network until ABC picks it up over the weekend for the final rounds. No worries though, it should still be easier to find than half the Yanks World Cup qualifiers on ESPN 9 and A Half. Happy channel surfing.
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can just spit vitriol at him because he argues that Chris Seitz had “one bad season” on Twitter, at @TYAC_Jon. Stay classy, Philadelphia.