Conference tournament week: where some of the best college basketball memories are made.
The NCAA tournament gets all the media attention—and why shouldn’t it? It’s always a blast for even the most casual basketball fans to fill out a bracket with friends and family.
But as we enter the week, we see the emergence of the true college basketball fans—the ones who remember Kemba’s run, Georgia’s 2008 miracle, Evan Turner’s half-court heave, and the 6OT thriller that lasted three hours and 46 minutes. For some, conference tournaments are a chance for revenge against rivals, a gateway to a spot in conference lore. For others, they simply provide a chance to dance. Here are my picks for this week’s biggest tournaments:
Potential Sleeper: Syracuse
Syracuse is a team on the bubble, but they’re currently in better shape than some of their fellow bubble teams—Joe Lunardi has them in the field as a No. 9 seed. But if the Orange want to head into Selection Sunday with any type of momentum, they need to beat Pittsburgh and at least put up a fight against Duke. The infamous Syracuse zone can always cause problems for opponents, so we can’t count the Orange out just yet.
If you were looking for a hangover after last year’s opening round defeat at the hands of UMBC, you won’t find it here (not yet, anyway). In fact, this Virginia team may be even better than last year’s, which lost three games all season and claimed the number one overall seed in the tournament.
Should Duke be the favorite with Zion returning to the lineup? Maybe, especially considering that they account for Virginia’s only two losses on the year. But I’ll stick with the mantra that defense wins championships (conference tournament championships, that is) and give the nod to the Cavaliers. They lead the nation in point allowed per game with 54.6 and have a legitimate three-headed monster in Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter. They will be a tough out in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
Prediction: North Carolina
North Carolina is not just my pick to win the ACC title—they’re currently my pick to win the national title. You need a few things to be successful come March—you have to be able to rebound the ball, and the Tar Heels lead the nation in total rebounds. It’s imperative to have good guard play—Coby White and Cameron Johnson make up one of the best guard tandems in the country. And lastly, it always helps to have an experienced coach, and Roy Williams has been around the block a few times. The Tar Heels lock up a number one seed this weekend.
Potential Sleeper: Georgetown
I was going to put Seton Hall here, but they’re the third seed in the Big East tournament, and after knocking off Marquette and Villanova in consecutive games, maybe they aren’t such a sleeper after all (If you haven’t had the chance to watch them yet, Myles Powell will cause some problems for teams come tournament time).
Georgetown is currently part of Lunardi’s “Next Four Out”, which means they have some serious work to do this week. However, they’re creeping closer to the field after winning four of their last six, including wins over Villanova and Marquette, and they have four Quad 1 wins under their belt. Two wins could be enough to get them in the field of 68.
Not a great showing from the Big East this year—Villanova beat out Marquette for the crown by one game for their fifth regular season title in six years, but it was an ugly finish for both teams—neither looked like they had much interest in winning the conference. Villanova lost five of its last eight, while Marquette lost four straight to end the year. But until proven otherwise, the Wildcats are still Big East favorites.
When it’s all said and done, Villanova and Marquette will square off for Big East glory. It’s a toss-up, but I’m taking the Wildcats based on experience—the seniors on Villanova have been to three straight Big East Championship games and have two titles under their belts, while Marquette has yet to even reach a Big East title game in their 13-year history in the conference. Phil Booth just outplays Markus Howard in a thriller.
Potential Sleeper: TCU
I like my sleepers to be teams playing with their backs against the wall—with a 7-11 record in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs probably have to win at least two games in Kansas City to feel any sense of security heading into Sunday.
But they’re not dead in the water yet.
An opening-round matchup against Oklahoma State is do-or-die—if they lose that one, they can most likely kiss their tournament hopes goodbye. If they win that game, though, there is a huge opportunity for a resume-booster against number one-seed Kansas State, who may be without second-leading scorer Dean Wade due to a recurring foot injury. TCU has five players averaging double digits, and if they can pull off the upset, they’d put the rest of the bubble teams on edge.
Favorite: Texas Tech
If you’re not enjoying the season that the Red Raiders are having, then you’re either not a college basketball fan or you’re a Longhorn fan.
For a team that was predicted to finish in the middle of the pack to not only win the conference, but to dethrone the Jayhawks’ 14-year streak of conference titles in the process is a major accomplishment in itself, and Chris Beard should be the frontrunner for Coach of the Year. This team didn’t miss a beat after losing Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith—they actually improved after last season and should be considered the favorites this week in Kansas City.
All signs point away from Kansas in their pursuit of the second consecutive Big 12 tournament title—the end of their streak, the loss of Vick and Azubuike, and their most conference losses since the 1988-1989 season.
I’m still taking the Jayhawks this week.
Kansas has been the class of the Big 12 for decades, and although their reign at the top has come to an end, they are still capable of making a run this week. They have the best player on the court most games in Dedric Lawson, who’s averaging 19.1 PPG and 10.6 RPG. But they can only have success in March if Quentin Grimes plays like the top-5 pick he was supposed to be. I believe he gets things going Thursday against the ailing Longhorns.
Potential Sleeper: Penn State
The Nittany Lions won’t make the tournament after losing their first ten games in conference play, but after that 10th loss, Pat Chambers must’ve given a pretty inspirational speech—they are 7-3 in their last ten, including wins over Michigan and Maryland.
Last season, Penn State won two games en route to a semifinal appearance in the Big Ten tournament—if they beat Minnesota, they’ll have a chance to play spoiler against Purdue. We often look for certain players to lead their teams on magical runs—for Penn State, look no further than Lamar Stevens, one of the most underappreciate players in the conference.
Favorite: Michigan State
Even without Josh Langford and Nick Ward, the top-seeded Spartans are still the favorite in Chicago. Cassius Winston is making his case for National Player of the Year, and Izzo just captured his 9th regular season title.
We’ve seen that Michigan State can beat the best in the Big Ten—they swept Michigan, split with Purdue, and beat Wisconsin in their only matchup this season. But they have had a kryptonite this season, and it’s actually been the Hoosiers—Indiana swept the season series, and both games were nail-biters that MSU couldn’t close out. If Indiana wins their first matchup, they have a chance to complete the trifecta. You never know in March…
The wildcard of the tournament.
The Badgers are capable of beating anyone in the Big Ten. But at the same time, they have also shown that they can lose on any given night (depends on their free throw shooting, but that’s a topic for a different day). I’m making this pick because of one man, and that is Khalil Iverson. I don’t know if maybe Gard challenged him, or he took the loss to MSU personally, but he has been on an absolute tear lately, scoring double-digits in five of his last six games. If he’s playing like that, Wisconsin can win three straight this week.
Potential Sleeper: Arkansas
Winners of three straight, Arkansas is heating up just in time for the SEC tournament. Few expect them to make much noise, but they are more than happy to play the sleeper role. I think they beat Florida in their first-round matchup, setting up a showdown with LSU—we would have the privilege of watching a Naz Reid–Daniel Gafford matchup, two future NBA big men.
Still not convinced there is a true favorite in this one, but we’ll give the slight edge to the brand name. Kentucky is still in contention for a number one seed, and that’s without Reid Travis—if he returns for the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats can go all the way, especially with the way this team is playing on defense. Despite not winning the SEC regular season crown over the past two seasons, John Calipari’s team should be favored in the postseason until someone dethrones them.
If there is one team that can end Kentucky’s four-year reign as SEC tournament champions, it’s the Volunteers—in the midst of arguably their best season ever, this experienced team is on a mission after having their hearts broken by Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32 last year. Grant Williams is set to become the first player to win SEC Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons since Corliss Williamson in 1994-1995 as he leads Tennessee to its first No. 1 seed in school history.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com and NCAA.com