TERRY COLUMN: Conferences bursting their own bubbles

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It happens every year around this time.

A college basketball team in a smaller conference storms through the regular season, possibly even gets ranked for the first time in school history. Everything seems to be setting up for the best season anybody involved with the program has ever seen.

Then, in one swooping motion, that team loses unexpectedly in its conference tournament, preventing Cinderella not only from attending the big dance, but from ever even trying on the glass slippers.

It nearly happened on Wednesday with the Montana State women, who needed to rally for an victory early in the Big Sky Conference tournament.

It has happened plenty on the menís side, most recently in the Big Sky when fourth-seeded Montana knocked off future NBA star Damian Lillard and Weber State in 2010.

The NCAA gives all 32 Division I basketball conferences an automatic bid into the season-ending tournament, which begins next weekend. How each automatic bid is doled out is decided by the individual conferences.

Over the years, each conference has decided to hold a tournament to determine that winner, setting up a bit of drama but also putting its best chance at representing itself strongly in the NCAA tournament at risk.

That set up works well for the power conferences, allowing some teams another chance to prove themselves against top competition. A few teams, like Connecticut in 2011, used a strong conference tournament to solidify a championship run. Others use it as a primer for the weekends to come.

Yet, in one-bid leagues, conferences can throw their best shot at making a name for themselves out the window. The uncertainty that drives ratings in the ACC and Pac-12 can be devastating in the Big Sky. Thereís a real possibility the best chance it has at an upset when it counts is destroyed before the tournament ever starts.

Strangely enough, the Ivy League had it right until this year, giving the automatic bid to the regular season champion. With even schedules in conference, the rightful champion played its way in over the season, giving teams like Harvard opportunites to pull upsets the last few years. However, they too started a tournament to get a few more dollars in the coffers and give some fringe teams a chance to dance.

Itís a great opportunity for the little guy. In this case, the littlest of programs has a chance to throw its best game against the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world, even if the only good part of its season came in a weeks stretch in early March.

However, if smaller conferences really wanted to give themselves a chance to build a tournament reputation, they should play instead for the big one at the end of the season.

Thatís where Cinderella really should be dancing.

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