SPARKS AND RECREATION: Finding the right dance partner

Mar. 18—When Sun Belt Player of the Year Abby Beeman went to the bench with her fifth foul in the closing seconds of the conference tournament championship last Monday, Marshall's dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament could have followed her off the floor.

It was a precarious position that The Thundering Herd should never have to experience after their historic season.

The 14 members of the Sun Belt had 10 weeks to prove themselves. Eighteen games. Marshall earned their way to the top of the standings after winning 17 of its 18 conference games. Nine road tests, bad shooting nights, late turnovers and the numerous stumbling blocks that can derail a team's track to the Big Dance, and the Herd nearly dodged them all.

Yet, it came down to six seconds to determine a moment that can change a player's dream into a nightmare. Marshall had already met the moment, 17 times over.

Thankfully, the Herd was leading by two when Beeman left the game and the team held on to win in overtime. You want to believe that the NCAA desires the best representative from each conference and not a team that found a little magic over a weekend or took advantage of an off night from a favorite. There's still plenty of March Madness in the tank without conference tournaments. Three or four games seem inconsequential to 18.

When a school plays mid-major conference basketball, it shares comparisons to a college football season. Of course, there are differences, but the scrutiny is the same. Every game down the stretch is calculated and dissected. A loss at the end of the season can be an abrupt end to your ultimate goal.

For schools that don't get to play in the national spotlight, the postseason path centers around a three-day sliver of March. A successful regular season slate doesn't come with rewards in the mid-majors. They can't collect Quad 1 or 2 victories because they don't exist on their schedule. One 40-minute game should not decide your fate. There will be plenty of time for that in the NCAA Tournament.

Regular season champions enter their conference tournament with a target squarely on their back. They are surrounded by desperate competitors who get one more chance to take a coveted spot in the Big Dance that the top seed rightfully deserves.

Coaches guide their teams through a tough conference season and still have to find a way to carry that momentum through another pressure-packed week.

First-year Marshall coach Kim Caldwell let her team enjoy every morsel of celebration but she knew what her team had to endure to get it.

"You're gonna have to put them on the baseline, you're gonna have to yell at them, it's for them to have this moment," said Caldwell, who was named SBC Coach of the Year. "And you could always not get it but that's what I approach every day with going into practice is picking that standard and holding them to it so they can have this moment for the rest of their lives."

Marshall recorded double-digit conference wins for only the fourth time in program history. The 26 wins and 17 conference victories are both school records but the Herd arrived at Pensacola for the Sun Belt Tournament still having to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament field.

A 16-0 record is not good enough for a spot in the Big Dance by NCAA standards. Middle Tennessee and former Boyd County star Savannah Wheeler had to find a way to secure three more when clearly the Blue Raiders are the best representative for Conference USA. They secured 19 straight and a C-USA crown on Saturday night. Wheeler was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

The Morehead State men's team didn't find the same fortune last season as regular-season champions, bowing out in the tournament semifinals. The Eagles finished in a three-way tie this year and beat the other two teams to take the OVC Tournament title in 2024.

Coach Preston Spradlin said after the win that regular season success comes with expectations that players have to overcome.

"This one feels different," Spradlin said. "Since 2021, there has been a little bit of pressure (to win). This one is extremely sweet because last year we came down there and we were tight. We were serious and all-business. We played that way and that's why we feel short."

I realize I'm wasting my breath. I pleaded the same case for Murray State nine years ago. (Column was titled Murray snub should prompt change) The Racers won 25 straight games to close the season and held a top 25 ranking when it lost a heartbreaker in the tournament final. Murray still didn't get an NCAA invite. The NCAA will never change because conference tournament adds more dollars to its wallet. They get to toss around words like Cinderella, underdog and upset. It creates intriguing video montages and celebrations that TV producers and NCAA executions can use to promote the madness.

Here's another tidbit of not-breaking news. Every mid-major team begins the season as an underdog and it doesn't change in March. A regular season champ has to prove themselves twice when they shouldn't have to because we have a larger sampling size to determine the top team of the conference.

The high school scene doesn't have the same similarities but the approach should be the same. The chalk usually finds its way to the top in high school basketball. It would be great if we could capture the same atmosphere at district tournament games and put it into regular-season district matchups.

First, we should put Lawrence County back in the 64th District. The Dawgs may like their current digs but it would put four teams in each district of the 16th Region. Teams have six games and six opportunities to determine a winner and runner-up. Do we need a seventh to figure out the top two teams?

Teams with bad records should not be in the region tournament. 0-10 teams should not be in the football playoffs.

The 15th Region adopted a super regional format this season. Every team gets a region tournament game so why do they even need a district tournament?

In January, the NCAA's Division I transformation committee suggested increasing the field to 96 teams. It would render the regular season unless and put more top teams from power conferences in the NCAA Tournament.

On the high school level, it's great to give kids an opportunity to play on the bigger stages.

But your spot in a postseason tournament should be earned, not given.

We don't need bigger tournaments. The regular season should mean more.

We don't need to make the dance floor larger. We just need the right dance partner.

Reach MATTHEW SPARKS at or (606) 326-2671. Follow @SparksWillFly35 on Twitter. (X).