It’s the week where, if you’re a diehard college basketball fan, not much work is getting done in the office or at school. Who could possibly focus with games on from 11 to 11 each day? It’s the week where teams break tournament appearance droughts, capture conference crowns, and see seniors step on the court for the final time.
Welcome to Championship Week.
Potential Sleeper: Virginia Tech
There are a lot of potential sleepers in the ACC, but none of them beat both Virginia and Duke.
The Hokies did.
Buzz Williams’ team has five players averaging double digits, and the Blue Devils had better not overlook them if there is a rematch in the quarterfinals.
Yes, I think Virginia is a fantastic team that can give you fits defensively—but when Duke is playing its best basketball, they’re not just the favorite in the ACC—there’s no better team in the country. With a plethora of talent, Duke has options at every position on the court. It just depends on which team shows up—the one that lost to St. Johns, or the team that’s won 6 of their last 7.
Prediction: North Carolina
An unpopular opinion for sure, especially since they’ve dropped their last two and I just raved about their rivals above. But the Tarheels have been a streaky team this year, and I foresee a run this week. With senior leadership from Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson, North Carolina has the experience to make noise in the ACC.
Potential Sleeper: Memphis
I fully expect the championship match-up to be Cincinnati-Wichita State, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers can’t win two games—if they win their first-round match-up against USF, they could potentially upset Tulsa, a team they split the season series with. The Tigers go where second-team All-conference player Jeremiah Martin goes. The junior guard is averaging 18.9 points per game this season.
The Bearcats won a thriller in Kansas on Sunday, claiming their second regular season conference title and establishing themselves as the team to beat in this tournament. Defense has been the name of the game this season, as Cincinnati is second only to Virginia in points per game allowed.
Prediction: Wichita State
I praised the Bearcats in the paragraph above, but I like the Shockers to win the American tournament—teams don’t take losing on senior night lightly, and Wichita State will have revenge on their mind when they meet Cincinnati in the championship game. Landry Shamet hits a game-winning three as time expires.
Potential Sleeper: Oklahoma State
Should the Cowboys win their first-round match-up against in-state rival Oklahoma, they will get a shot at the top-seeded Jayhawks—a team they swept in the regular season series. Oklahoma State finished the season strong, winning three of their last four with wins over Kansas and Texas Tech.
Through the ups and downs of the Big-12 season, the Kansas Jayhawks have once again remained the constant of the conference. It wasn’t always pretty, but Kansas was able to win its 14th straight Big-12 regular season title. However, they’ve only won one of the past four conference tournaments, so the pressure is on Bill Self and his team to deliver another title and a number one seed on Sunday.
Just too much talent.
Devonte’ Graham and Lagerald Vick are one of the best guard tandems in the country, and if Udoka Azubuike is on in the post, no Big 12 team is beating this team. But it’s imperative that the Jayhawks utilize “homefield advantage” this week, given that the tournament is held 43 miles from the university.
Potential Sleeper: Marquette
We talked about Graham/Vick as an elite tandem above, but the duo of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey for the Golden Eagles have been equally as important to their respective teams, though not as recognized nationwide. And if Marquette is in a game that comes down to free throws, give me the Golden Eagles, who are 3rd in the country in free throw percentage.
Until Xavier proves they can hang with Villanova (they were blown out in both match-ups this season), the Wildcats are the team to beat in the Big East. Villanova was able to hang on during the absence of Phil Booth, and now that he’s returned, they are the favorites at Madison Square Garden this week.
What a five year stretch for Villanova—the Wildcats have won 156 games over the past five years, including two Big East tournament championships and a national title, and they certainly have the talent to add a third conference title—if they can continue their nation-best 87.2 points per game mark, that third title is theirs to lose.
Potential Sleeper: Oregon
This is a team that has players from the Final Four squad a year ago, and the Ducks have been to the past three Pac-12 title games—granted, this is a different team than years’ past, but experience counts, and they would not have to face Arizona until the championship game.
Despite the controversy surrounding Sean Miller and Deandre Ayton, the Wildcats are still the most talented team in the Pac-12 and should be considered the clear favorites heading into the week. Arizona is currently a fourth seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology.
Arizona State could challenge their in-state rivals. UCLA can hang around. I’ll even give USC a shot. But the Wildcats are angry—they feel as though they’ve been wrongly accused, they’ve lost three future commits since the FBI wiretaps were released, and they will be on a warpath this week in pursuit of their third Pac-12 championship in four years. It’s now or never, as Ayton, Trier, and Akins are all gone next season, per Sean Miller.
Potential Sleeper: Missouri
The tournament is in Missouri and we could see the return of Michael Porter Jr. That is essentially all I needed to justify my pick in this category. The Tigers get the winner of Georgia-Vanderbilt on Thursday, and should they win that matchup, they would welcome the Kentucky Wildcats—a team they already beat in Missouri this season.
Is it weak to not pick a favorite? Maybe. But I don’t see a legitimate standout in the SEC right now. Auburn has the gaudy record but have only played two ranked teams this season (they did win both match-ups). Kentucky has the most talent but has severely underperformed this year. Tennessee would probably the team I lean to if I had to pick, given that they’re entering the tournament on a four-game winning streak, but I’m excited for this wide-open tournament to say the least.
Here I go, picking the one team I didn’t mention above. I’ll never forget the name Chris Chiozza, and neither should the rest of the SEC. He is just one of many veterans on this Florida that I believe is ready to dethrone Kentucky as the SEC tournament champions.
Stats courtesy of ESPN and NCAA