Regular-season championships are vastly underrated in America. In the four major professional leagues, the aura surrounding the playoffs completely eclipses anything that came before. And it makes sense — drama is heightened in the short series or single game, and the romance of sport is built on the heroism that emerges from these moments. They also take place after the regular season, increasing the prominence and the stakes. Extreme tension ensures that success or failure will obliterate all previous memories. Do Giants fans care that the team's 9-7 regular-season record was the worst of any NFC playoff team? Do Patriots fans care that their team won the division with the best record in the AFC? Of course not. The Super Bowl takes precedence.
It's a very human reaction, and it makes everything more fun. But the playoffs are still an unjust mechanism for determining a champion. This is true in professional baseball, basketball, and hockey, with their short series formats, but it's especially glaring in the single-elimination playoff formats used by the NFL and college basketball. These aren't measures of the best team, necessarily, but the best team at a specific moment. Those are very different things. A regular-season championship rewards consistency and sustained excellence, while a playoff championship rewards peaking at the perfect time.
Call it the Still Photo Conundrum. Just as most successful human beings would prefer to be judged for the range of their actions over a lifetime, rather than a photo taken at their worst moment, so the best teams would prefer to be judged over a full season. In fact, the playoff system has an odd side effect — the team with the best record has the most to lose. Look at the two Patriot losses to the Giants. A win would have been a sigh of relief; simply living up to expectations. But each loss spelled disaster. Meanwhile, the Giants had everything to gain and presumably less pressure.
You could argue that each team understands that it is supposed to get hot for the playoffs — and therefore the best coaches and teams plan things out accordingly — but you could just as easily argue that it's an arbitrary system that benefits the luckiest top-tier team. If we were robot mathematicians, the problem would be simple. Do you reward success over 90 percent of games played, or 10 percent?
European soccer fans have something approaching a more objective attitude. A league championship in the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A is as important or even more so than the league cup (which is held simultaneously with the regular season, rather than afterward; an interesting format that eliminates the Still Photo Conundrum), and maybe just a hair below the continental Champions League title.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in a perfect world, we'd appreciate regular-season titles as benchmarks of excellence. As someone who follows Duke basketball and Yankee baseball (I love you too, reader), I've experienced my share of titles. But I've also seen many great seasons end with playoff disappointment. Each time, the season was pronounced a failure, and each time I found myself wishing we could put more stock in what happened along the way. Where are the parties for an ACC title? Where's the celebration for the best record in baseball?
So, going against the grain, I try to appreciate the grind. Especially in college hoops. And even though we'll forget the noble champions in the furor of March, it's worth looking at where the six major conferences stand at roughly the halfway point of conference play. Sure, the NCAA and the conference tournaments matter most. But which teams are vying for that third, forgotten title? We'll start in the ACC.
The Front-runners: No. 5 North Carolina (7-1), no. 15 Florida State (7-1)
Waiting in the Wings: No. 10 Duke (6-2)
The Story: The fight for an ACC title took a crucial swing this weekend, when North Carolina and Florida State survived scares, while Duke could not, losing 78-74 in overtime to Miami. The triumvirate at the top was narrowed to two, and now Duke faces a precarious situation — if it doesn't win at the Dean Dome on Wednesday, the Blue Devils can kiss a conference title goodbye. And when even Duke fans — not a humble group, traditionally — don't like their team's chances, you know trouble is afoot.
At the top, North Carolina and Florida State have rough schedules. The Seminoles demolished Carolina in Tallahassee earlier this season, and are fortunate to not visit the Dean Dome this season. They also beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Michael Snaer's buzzer-beater, so they're free and clear of their two hardest games. But road games at Virginia and NC State and a home contest at Duke are all possible losses. As for Carolina, both Duke games remain, along with trips to NC State, Miami, and Virginia.
The Edge: Florida State. They own the tiebreaker with Carolina, and after a 58-55 win against Virginia last weekend, it's time to take the Seminoles seriously.
Biggest Remaining Games: Duke at North Carolina (Wednesday night), Duke at Florida State (February 23), Florida State at Virginia (March 1), North Carolina at Duke (March 3)
The Front-runner: No. 4 Missouri (9-2)
Waiting in the Wings: No. 6 Baylor (8-2), no. 7 Kansas (8-2)
The Story: I've long held the position that Missouri is a bit overrated, but that position keeps getting less and less tenable. Still, I've got the sense that I'm right, and history will exonerate me. While last weekend's 74-71 victory over Kansas was impressive, it took a late act of heroism by Marcus Denmon, along with some questionable calls, to pull out a home win. Last night, the Tigers escaped from unranked Oklahoma on the road, and four of their last five wins have been incredibly close. Then again, they are blessed with the best offense in the country, and it's possible that I'll regret not riding the Tiger train while it was still accepting passengers. It's hard to tell if the other shoe is about to drop, but with a game Saturday against Baylor, the picture might clear up.
The Bears are full of talent and short on execution. Their tendency to give up offensive boards cost them dearly in losses to Kansas and Missouri, and they've barely survived the last three conference games against unranked opponents. If the Bears want us to believe in them, they have to earn it with a home win against Kansas on Wednesday.
The Edge: Kansas. With doubt circling around the other top programs, I'm left with the Jayhawks. I'm still convinced that they were the better team against Missouri and will have their revenge in Lawrence later this year. If they beat Baylor on Wednesday, they'll control their own destiny. Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson are incredible talents, and Bill Self is the best coach in the conference.
Biggest Remaining Games: Kansas at Baylor (Wednesday night), Baylor at Missouri (February 11), Kansas at Kansas State (February 13), Missouri at Kansas (February 25)
The Front-runner: No. 2 Syracuse (10-1)
Waiting in the Wings: No. 18 Marquette (9-3), no. 12 Georgetown (8-3), Notre Dame (7-3)
The Story: If it hasn't already, Syracuse can seal the deal with a home win Wednesday against Georgetown. (By the way, are you starting to notice that Wednesday is probably the best day of the college basketball regular season? Duke-North Carolina, 'Cuse-Georgetown, Kansas-Baylor wow. Throw in Florida-Kentucky on Tuesday night, and we've got eight of the top 12 teams in the country facing off in four games.)
But in truth, having a two-game cushion in a conference with a tendency to beat up on each other is probably more than Syracuse needs. If you believe Georgetown has a chance Wednesday, though, the rest of their schedule looks nice. Only a road game at Marquette on the last day of the regular season jumps out as a potential loss. The Golden Eagles are in a similar situation, with no ranked opponents other than Georgetown remaining. Buzz Williams' crew does have road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati, though, which are never easy wins.
The Edge: Syracuse, big time.
Biggest Remaining Games: Georgetown at Syracuse (Wednesday night), maybe Georgetown at Marquette (March 3)
The Front-runner: No. 3 Ohio State (8-2)
Waiting in the Wings: No. 11 Michigan State (7-3)
The Story: It's a two-horse race at this point, with Wisconsin and Michigan each losing to the top dogs last weekend to both fall to 7-4 in conference. The Buckeyes' win over Wisconsin was the first victory in Madison in almost a decade, and it showcased how well the team is playing over the past two weeks. The Spartans earned their revenge on Michigan, and two of Tom Izzo's losses have come by one point on the road.
There are plenty of pitfalls in the country's best conference, but the title should come down to the two remaining Michigan State-Ohio State games. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they probably need to win both to have a chance. Ohio State's defense is the best in the country, and Michigan State sits at fourth, so expect some real low-scoring brawls to decide the Big Ten. And that's as it should be.
The Edge: Ohio State
Biggest Remaining Games: Michigan State at Ohio State (February 11), Ohio State at Michigan State (March 4)
The Front-runner: Washington (9-2)
Waiting in the Wings: California (8-3), Colorado (8-3), Arizona (7-4)
The Story: As someone who writes about, follows, and loves college basketball, I should probably not be flippant about the conference as a whole. And yet
[Wakes up with a start, looks around dazed, sees the words "Pac-12" on the screen]
Not only are there zippo teams from this conference in the Top 25, but no team even has a single vote or point in the AP poll (Cal has five points in the ESPN/USA Today poll). Essentially, the winner of this conference will be a perfect 7-seed to sacrifice to the best 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. The runner-up in this conference? Might not make the dance.
I'm not saying I won't watch Pac-12 games, but I'm duty bound. It's the college basketball equivalent of a dreaded trip to the nursing home.
The Edge: Cal. Better schedule, fewer road games, more talent. But watch out for Arizona sneaking in through the back door. The Pac-12 has notoriously lazy backdoor guards.
Biggest Remaining Games: Arizona at Washington (February 18), Cal at Colorado (February 26)
The Front-runner: No. 1 Kentucky (9-0)
Waiting in the Wings: No. 8 Florida (7-1)
The Story: Another two-horse race, by virtue of Kentucky's dominance. I do expect the Wildcats to lose at least one of the next two road games, at Missisippi State and Vanderbilt, but it won't be enough to bring them in range of either team. Instead, it's up to Florida. The first Gators-Wildcats game is Tuesday night, but it's in Lexington, and that doesn't bode well for Billy Donovan. The road has been unkind to his team lately, with two recent narrow wins against weak opponents (Ole Miss, South Carolina) following bad losses to Rutgers and Tennessee.
Oddly enough, Kentucky will be the third potential 1-seed Florida has played away from home this season. Ohio State and Syracuse were the others (both close road losses), and you have to wonder if the Gators are the kind of team who will turn into world beaters with all kinds of experience in March. Depending on how they finish the season and the conference tourney, this is my dark horse Final Four team.
Florida does have the second-best offense in the country, and tonight it will need every bit of it against Anthony Davis and the incredible Cats. With an unlikely road win, the Gators will grab the reins in the SEC and whip the oxen of their own destiny (sorry). Otherwise, they have to hope for Kentucky to slip once before they get a chance for revenge in Gainesville in early March.
The Edge: Kentucky. You can't bet against the best team in the country at home.
Biggest Remaining Games: Florida at Kentucky (Tuesday night), Kentucky at Vanderbilt (February 11), Florida at Alabama (February 14), Kentucky at Florida (March 4)